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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 New York City Council took up the issue of racial segregation in the city's public schools today, but concern about the lack of diversity at eight schools—the academically elite specialized high schools that admit students solely on the basis of one exam—all but drowned out discussion about 1,700 other schools.

Most of the debate at the education committee hearing centered around a nonbinding resolution, offered by City Councilwoman Inez Barron, calling for the state government to change the 1971 law that makes the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) the sole criteria for admission to StuyvesantBronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech. (The city also uses the test to determine who gets accepted by five other specialized high schools created since the law was passed.) Instead, it says, the city should use "multiple objective measures of student merit," such as grade point average, attendance and state test scores, as well as some type of exam.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for changes in the admissions procedures for the specialized schools, which have only a small number of black and Latino students. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has been more cautious, saying on Staten Island last spring that she wanted to improve diversity at the schools without "diluting the experience."

At the hearing, Department of Education officials continued to be vague. Ursulina Ramirez, chief of staff to the chancellor, declined to tell the committee today whether she supported Barron's resolution. "We generally don't comment on resolutions," she said.

Monday, 01 December 2014 13:29

Keep exam, say specialized high school alums

Offer more test prep. Give all 7th-graders a practice exam and allow 8th- and 9th-grade test-takers more time to complete the competitive specialized high school exam known as the SHSAT. Those are among the proposals that a coalition of graduates of the city's eight specialized high schools that use the SHSAT sent this week to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. With the City Council slated to take up the issue of the future of the exam on Dec. 11, alumni signing the letter oppose any move to abandon the exam, the sole determinant of which students get into Stuyvesant and the other exam-based specialized high schools.

The alumni echo calls for more racial diversity at the schools, which have few black and Latino students, but say abandoning the test is not the solution. Instead, the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Organizations note that 15 percent of middle schools account for 85 percent of students admitted to specialized high schools and call for "correcting unequal educational opportunities that exist in the elementary and middle schools."

"Nobody wants to hear the real problem is the educational system," Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation and one of the signers of the letter, said in an interview. People are "fooling themselves," he said, if they believe they can maintain the rigor of the specialized schools while they "wave a magic wand and overlook the fact that the educational system in New York City is as bad as it is for large numbers of kids."

This weekend, thousands of 8th and 9th graders will be presenting art portfolios, delivering monologues, dancing and singing in an effort to win admission to the elite “Fame” school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. But some parents and faculty say that the performances the students have been preparing for months may have less influence than the state English and math tests they took last spring.

Parents of several students who applied for admission last year said their children did well on their auditions but were rejected on the basis of their academic performance or attendance. Students applying to the school in September 2014 were the first seeking admission since Dr. Lisa Mars, a former assistant principal at Townsend Harris High School,became principal in 2013. The school's admissions director, Mark Neidorff left last spring after four years in the job.

LaGuardia is one of the city's nine specialized high schools, whose admissions process is set by the state. But while the other eight admit students entirely on the basis of an exam, the state law says children applying to LaGuardia "shall be required to pass competitive exams in music and/or the arts in addition to presenting evidence of satisfactory achievement."

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."

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