Critics call NY state’s plans to rate schools based on racial, ethnic group performance ‘dangerous’ and ‘confusing’

New York state’s proposed rating system for reporting on how well schools serve specific “subgroups” sends the wrong message, some advocates say, by creating uneven standards for students of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

Under the State Education Department’s draft plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, schools would receive a rating of 1 through 4 for the academic achievement of each racial or ethnic subgroup of students, as compared to other students in the same subgroups statewide. While regulations under the No Child Left Behind law tracked achievement data by subgroup as well, this is the first time the data will be converted into a rating and presented on every school’s report card.

The subgroups would remain the same as under NCLB: Asian or Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic, Native American, multiracial or white. Students could also be classified as English language learners, low-income, and/or having disabilities. In addition to subgroup scores, the schools would also receive an overall score for the performance of their students compared to all students across the state.

State Education Department officials said the new subgroup ratings, based largely on test scores, are meant to encourage accountability. With each subgroup assigned a performance level, it will be clear how each subgroup in a particular school is performing relative to state goals. It will also allow the state to use measures of “interim progress” individualized for each subgroup, the officials said.

But critics say this system has major drawbacks. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY, noted the methodology could create “uneven expectations for student performance,” as the same student test scores that could result in a 2 for the all-students group could generate a 4 for black or low-income students. The ratings, he said, would have no consistent or fair value, and would signal to parents and schools that there are different standards for different groups of students.

“It is extremely dangerous,” Rosenblum said. “If the main information parents have is a dashboard with all these ratings, if they see a 4, they should be confident 4 means a high level of performance. But it doesn’t. It just means better performance than schools with the same subgroups of students.”

Rosenblum acknowledged that the state has reasonable goals: revealing how well schools serve particular subgroups, such as English learners or students with disabilities. But he said the new rating system would “create more problems than it solves.”

Diana Noriega, chief program officer at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, expressed concern with how the ratings would be communicated to parents. Noriega works closely with parents who do not speak English as their first language — and who often have difficulty understanding the reports and information coming from their children’s school and the city’s education department.

“Think of a parent who is not a native speaker who is also accustomed to getting a level grade for their student, and so they assume the 4 is overall performance,” Noriega said. “Now, you are going to present what seems to be the same data but is not actually the same data. That is confusing.”

Though she does not question the state’s motivation, she said she and her organization will continue to push for the information to be well-described in reports and made easy to understand for parents. The state should track how each subgroup is performing, Noriega said, as it did under No Child Left Behind, but the score presented to parents should be the overall summative school score and not just a score in the context of that subgroup.

Department officials said the state does not yet know what the school dashboards will look like, but that the department is currently working on developing the design.

They acknowledged the negative feedback from advocates. “Some groups have expressed concern that because the long-term goals for subgroups are different, performance at the different levels are not comparable for the different subgroups,” education department officials said. “However, we believe that once persons understand that Level 4 means that this is a high performance for this subgroup of students, we believe this should not be an issue.”

A revised draft of the plan will be provided to the state’s Board of Regents at its July meeting, and the final plan will be acted on by the Regents at their September meeting, according to department officials.

legal showdown

Lawsuit targets New York City program that strands poor students without required special ed services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Public Advocate Letitia James announced a report earlier this month criticizing the city's special education voucher program.

A program that makes New York City parents responsible for finding their own special education services — but that often leaves them with no services at all — is under legal attack.

The class action lawsuit, filed Thursday in a federal district court, aims to reform the city’s process for ensuring that students with disabilities receive “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling, among other therapies.

When the city’s education department is unable to offer those services itself, or through a contractor, parents are given a voucher that can be used to pay an outside provider. But that system puts the onus on families to find providers, and about half of the 9,164 vouchers issued during the 2015-16 school year went unused, according to a report issued earlier this month by the public advocate’s office.

The lawsuit centers on the Bronx, where the problem is particularly acute. In District 8, which includes Hunts Point, Throgs Neck and Soundview, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued last school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city.

The city’s public advocate found that families face a number of barriers to using the vouchers: They often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.

In part because of those challenges, an attorney who helped bring the lawsuit said the city can’t simply offer a voucher to fulfil its obligation to provide special education services.

“The DOE has to ensure that students actually get [services]” said Seth Packrone, a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, which contributed to the public advocate’s report. “They can’t just issue a voucher and then step away.”

The goal of the litigation is to force the education department to come up with a plan to ensure that students in the Bronx receive the services they have been guaranteed, Packrone said. It is not yet clear what that plan could entail or how it could affect other neighborhoods, which also have large numbers of unused vouchers.

The complaint says the city’s voucher program violates multiple federal laws that guarantee students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education. The plaintiffs in the case are two Bronx students and Bronx Independent Living Services, a nonprofit that works with students who have disabilities.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement: “We are dedicated to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and in the small percentage of cases when we issue a related service authorization, we work with families to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area.”

She referred questions about the lawsuit to a law department spokesman, who said the city is reviewing the complaint.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.