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Gail Robinson

Gail Robinson

Gail Robinson was editor in chief of Gotham Gazette for four years and covered education for the Gazette before that. A Brooklyn resident, she began her career as an education reporter in Westchester and has been executive editor of a foreign affairs magazine and political editor for a news feature service. Her two children graduated from New York City public schools.

The Specialized High School Admissions Test that thousands of 8th-graders will take this weekend has long been a multiple-choice exam scored by a machine. But there are indications that the new exam students will take starting in in 2016 might have an essay component.

Last month, the city issued a Request for Proposals for a new SHSAT, which is the sole determinant of whether a student gets into one of the eight academically elite high schools. The current contract with Pearson runs out in 2016 so the city must put the test out for bids and sign a new contract with someone to create a test for fall 2016 and beyond.

The new RFP tells prospective bidders that including hand-scored "constructed response and/or essay response" questions would be "desired but not required." If the test does have essays, the RFP goes on to say, the bid must include "information on the items themselves and on how and by whom the items would be scored."

Later on, the document refers again to "shorter written and/or essay responses," saying bidders may "optionally address" them.

(Note: Post updated on Sept. 17, 2014)

Mayor Bill de Blasio has hinted that his administration will change the admissions procedures sometime in the future—not this year—at the five specialized high schools established during the Bloomberg administration, which are not governed by state law: Brooklyn Latin; High School of American Studies at Lehman College; High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College; Queens High School for the Sciences at York College; and Staten Island Tech.

The changes would address concerns that declining numbers of black and Latino students are accepted at the elite specialized schools that use the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the sole criterion for admission.

No changes are planned for this year, and the SHSAT given on Oct. 25 and 26 will be basically the same as it's always been. 

Even in the future, it's not likely that the SHSAT will be eliminated for the three older, exam-based specialized schoolsStuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science—because that would require action in Albany. Some legislators have introduced bills to change the 1971 law that establishes the exam as the only admission criterion for these three schools, but the chance of passage appears slim. However, it looks likely that the test itself will change. The city's Department of Education has issued a request for proposals "to provide a standardized testing program which is designed to select students for admission into the specialized high schools." The new test would come into effect in 2015 and proposals are due by Oct. 23, 2014. There is a pre-proposal conference on Sept.29, 2014, at 10:30 am at 131 Livingston Street, Room 610 in Brooklyn.

Bill de Blasio had been mayor for less than four months when the city's elementary and middle school students took standardized tests this past April. And, according to numbers released on Thursday, more than 68 percent of students who took the tests this year failed to meet state standards in English; 64 percent fell short in math.

Still, the scores are somewhat higher than they were when de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, announced test results a year ago. To announce this year's numbers, de Blasio along with Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña held an ebullient press conference on Thursday, predicting that the administration's reforms would propel students towards bigger gains in the year ahead.

De Blasio made the announcement outside the Brooklyn Brownstone School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which, he said, saw the percentage of its students scoring proficient—generally regarded as a level 3 or 4 score—on the English test rise from 27.5 in 2013 to 44.1 percent in 2014. The number of students meeting state standards in math also increased substantially.


Standing with school principal Nakia Haskins, de Blasio said Brooklyn Brownstone developed a program aimed at having students "think analytically—not just take a test ... This is a deeper approach."

"This school is a trendsetter for things that are starting to happen citywide," de Blasio said. In particular, he cited improved teacher support and training. "You can see the difference it’s making when our teachers are supported in their efforts to help students get to the root of things." 

De Blasio readily conceded many students still fall short on that measure. But he said he hopes the types of programs in effect at Brooklyn Brownstone, along with more professional development for teachers, the expansion of pre-k, increasing the number of afterschool programs for middle school students and creating community schools offering a variety of services and supports to students and their families would improve academic performance across the city.

"Test scores are one indicator of progress," de Blasio said, "but tests like this are only one measure. And I'll say this when scores are good and when they're not so good."

Certainly the tests will have less clout than they once did. Indications are that the city's progress reports for individual schools will put less emphasis on test scores. The state has barred selective middle and high schools from using the scores as the sole means for determining which students they admit. In response, the Department of Education has committees working on new admissions procedures, which are expected to issue reports by the end of September, Fariña said.

Education department officials at the press conference said students will be able to access their scores the last week in August.

In light of persistently low scores among many black and Hispanic students, particularly boys, Fariña said the department would create more single-sex schools, such as a new branch of the Eagle Academy for Young Men slated to open on Staten Island, and would improve guidance services. She said an emphasis on technology, while beneficial to all students, might particularly help these low-scoring boys.

Fariña said she was encouraged by the decline in the number of students scoring at Level 1, meaning the student is "well below proficient." In 2014, 34.7 percent of children were at level 1, compared to 36.4 percent in 2013. In math, the percentage dropped to 33.9 percent from 36.8 percent. Students with a level 2 are considered approaching proficiency and are thought to be on track to graduating high school, though perhaps not to being "college and career ready."

While the sharp drop in test scores last year—the first year that the tests reflected the new Common Core standards—spurred opposition to the Common Core, de Blasio expressed strong support for the standards. "This is a new standard and a higher standard and the right standard," he said.

New York City students did slightly better on state standardized test this spring than they did in 2013, but about two-thirds of test-takers in grades 3–8 still failed to meet state standards on either the English language arts (ELA) or math tests, according to figures released by the state education department today.

In New York City, 34.5 percent of students met or exceeded state standards as measured by the math test, up from 30.1 percent last year. For the state as a whole, 35.8 percent passed the math test, compared to 31.2 in 2013.

ELA scores for the state remained largely flat, with pass rates—the number of children getting a level 3 or 4—increasing by a tenth of a percentage point, from 31.3 percent to 31.4 percent. New York City students, while still scoring below the statewide average, saw a greater increase in English scores, as 29.4 percent scored a level 3 or 4 as compared with 27.4 percent in 2013.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013 10:04

Test prep didn't prevent score drop

Energy and optimism burst out of the 2011 video [view below] by students at Young Women's Leadership School in Brooklyn. Dancing and singing to the tune of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite," they proclaim, "Test prep goes on and on and on....I am brilliant. I have confidence. Gonna ace these tests."

This month, many city students will see such optimism ebb when they learn how they scored on the state's standardized reading and math tests. At Brooklyn's Young Women's Leadership, for example, only 24 percent scored well enough to be viewed as "passing" the English test, with less than 15 percent passing the math exam. In the first tests tied to the new Common Core standards, other schools, particularly in poorer parts of the five boroughs or with high percentages of black and Latino students, had similar results.

Individual student scores will become available on ARIS the week of Aug. 26, the Department of Education says. During that week, the department plans to have staff in selected libraries to explain the new tests and help parents access their child's scores.

Many families will get bad news. Some will see their child tumble a level or two; others will find their child, considered solidly proficient for the last few years, now falling to a Level 1.

Tuesday, 02 July 2013 11:40

K-12 charters: No seats for outsiders

If all goes according to plan, about 70 proud teenagers will get diplomas when Success Academy Charter School–Manhattan High School graduates its first class in spring 2018. The moment will likely bring some sadness, though. After all, most of these students will have been together since they entered kindergarten in fall 2007.

Over the years, some students will no doubt have left the group. But, if Success sticks to its announced policies, no new students would have joined the class since 2010, when the graduates were 9 or 10 years old.

Firmly entrenched at the elementary school level, even though they educate only about 6 percent of New York City's public school students, an increasing number of charter operators are seeking to offer a K-12 education for their students.

How they handle this expansion—whether they admit students from other elementary and middle schools—is almost certain to raise new questions and concerns about the role of charter schools and who they serve. Despite those and other questions, the Bloomberg administration is working to put as many charters into play as possible as the clock ticks down to the end of the mayor's term.

Read the rest of this story on City Limits: New Charter High School Will be Closed to Transfer Students

Wednesday, 12 December 2012 12:17

Passions run high over charter school sitings

Barring any astounding development, on Dec. 20, the Panel on Educational Policy will vote to allow 13 new charter schools to open next fall in Department of Education buildings currently used by at least one other public school. While parents, students, educators and others sharply disagree on the merits of the individual schools, many concur that the process for deciding which charters go where is deeply flawed.

Already some mayoral candidates have opposed the procedure. And speakers at two hearings in north Brooklyn last week offered scathing attacks on how the DOE sites charter schools.

Under New York state law, charter schools do not get money for facilities, a major obstacle where space is scarce and expensive. The DOE has come to the rescue by providing charters with free space. In 2011-12, according to New York City Charter School Center, 58 percent of the city's charter schools were in DOE buildings. While the Education Department no longer has the power to authorize charters -- that responsibility lies with the state Board of Regents and SUNY – its Office of Portfolio Planning places the schools.

The hearing process is "a piece of theater that leaves us disappointed and even dehydrated," said District 14 parent Kate Yourke, "I don't know how we stop this because we have no power. The law in this state gives us no say."

Tuesday, 20 November 2012 16:30

New charters target wealthier areas

The fifth graders, dressed in white shirts and navy slacks or shirts, sit in neat rows as the teacher offers up some basic principles of division. "How can you divide 0 into 64 pieces?" she asks, before telling them to write a definition in their notebook–taking care to write neatly and use complete sentences.

Down the hall, an English teacher offers explicit directions to another group of children. "If you do not have your written material, wait and put your hand in the air," she says. "Every binder should be zipped and standing next to your desk."

This middle school, Brooklyn Ascend in Brownsville, goes beyond academic basics–students read Shakespeare and study art, Spanish and music. But it smacks of discipline and tradition. The school's founder, Steven Wilson, says such routines avoid wasted time.

"We have a tremendous amount of work to do here to overcome deficiencies" that the school's largely low-income, black students arrive at the school with, Wilson says. "Teachers leading very purposeful activities are the way to allow our students to catch up and make a middle-class life."

For almost a decade, schools such as Brooklyn Ascend have represented the face of charter schools in New York City. Overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, they stress academics and discipline in their efforts to push children in the city's most blighted neighborhoods to excel academically.

Now, though, charter schools in Brooklyn have entered a new phase. Led by Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy network is the city's largest and most controversial group of charters, operators have started to open charter schools in more diverse and affluent parts of the city, including Williamsburg, Cobble Hill and Fort Greene. To attract parents in these areas, some schools now stress diversity and a more progressive curriculum...

(Read the rest of this story, "Charters Target Middle Class Brooklyn" on City Limits.)

Wednesday, 06 June 2012 18:53

Vanishing students at Harlem Success?

Many uptown Manhattan parents hope that winning the lottery for a seat at Harlem Success Academy I will put their child on the path to academic achievement. But just because a child gets into Harlem Success does not mean he or she will complete 5th grade there. The school -- part of Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy network -- has a high attrition rate, leading critics to charge that the school may push out low achieving or difficult students.

Harlem Success denies that's the case, and says the attrition can be explained by children moving away--or even skipping a grade. Without better data from the state, it's impossible to say who is right. But one thing is certain: Harlem Success loses a lot of kids between kindergarten and 5th grade.


According to figures on the school's New York State Report Card, 83 students entered kindergarten in 2006-07, the school's first year of operation. When that class reached 4th grade in 2010-11, it had only 53 students -- a drop of 36 percent. Harlem Success also took in a 1st grade class with 73 students in 2006. When that group reached 5th grade, it too had shrunk appreciably -- by 36 percent.

The attrition accelerated as the classes advanced. The 2006-07 1st grade class, for example, did not shrink at all as it entered 2nd grade, but saw one sharp falloff between 2nd and 3rd and another between 4th and 5th.

So far, following classes have not shown a similar decline. The 2007-08 kindergarten started out with 123 students, increased to 127 the following year and then fell back to 117 by the time it reached 3rd grade in 2010-11.

The United Federation of Teachers charges that the school may weed out students before they take standardized tests at the end of 3rd grade. Citing Harlem Success's attrition during a panel discussion on charter schools sponsored by the New York City Bar Association, UFT vice president Leo Casey said, "All of the students who would have brought down the statistics are gone."

In a subsequent email, Casey wrote, "It may be significant that the bulk of the attrition at Harlem Success Academy 1 seems to have come in the tested grades."

Harlem Success boasts extremely high test scores and the network has made them a major selling point.

Asked about the attrition at Harlem Success, a spokeswoman denied the school pushes out students. "Success Academy Charter Schools does not counsel out students or encourage them to leave," she said in an email. Shifts in size, according to the school, come from students moving, skipping a grade or having to leave for other reasons, such as illness.

Not all charters see their classes shrink. Overall, the attrition rate at elementary charter schools is roughly equivalent to those at district schools, according to a recent report by the New York City Charter School Center. At Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy, the attrition was virtually non-existent; in fact, some classes grew.

The three other Harlem Success schools also show little to no attrition so far. The state data, though, only goes through the 2010-2011 school year when none of those schools went beyond 3rd grade.

James Merriman, chief executive officer of the Charter School Center, said the data does not provide an adequate picture of what occurs at schools -- district or charter. The numbers simply compare the size of two classes; they do not indicate how many children in a school's 5th grade started there as kindergartners and how many enrolled somewhere along the way.

Merriman said he does not think many schools push out difficult students. "I'm not saying that pattern doesn't exist for a particular individual school. I'm not saying that it does," Merriman said. He added the state and city need to collect more data "so that if it does exist we can find it."

Rather than looking at the shrinking class size, Harlem Success points to the school stability rate. This measure, also on state report cards, is the percentage of students in a school's highest grade who were enrolled in the school during the previous year. Harlem Success has a 100 percent stability score, according to the state report card. Harlem Success officials say District 3, where the school is located, has an overall stability score of 87 percent.

While the number has some significance, a school could, in theory, guarantee itself a perfect score by not admitting any new students to its highest grade. The union says that is, in fact, what happens: Unlike conventional public schools, charters do not admit students to fill vacancies in higher grades.

Harlem Success also has a high suspension rate -- 15 percent in the 2009-10 school year. (The state report cards do not list expulsions.) Charter schools do not have to adhere to the city's discipline code, according to Merriman, as long as they have an approved code and provide due process to students accused of infractions.

At a City Council hearing earlier this spring, Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, and Councilmember Gale Brewer asked Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg about charters removing difficult students. "Charter schools have an obligation to serve all comers," Sternberg said. Those that failed to do so, he added, could see their charters revoked.