Thursday, 12 March 2015 15:16

"Hey, ho! Cuomo's plan has got to go"

Hundreds of children, parents, teachers, and school leaders encircled PS 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn before school this morning. Despite the chilly weather, the school community was fired up against Governor Cuomo’s proposed education reform in New York. Many feel it will harm children, teachers and communities—and I am one of them.

Cuomo aims to take teacher evaluation out of the hands of public school leaders and communities and into the hands of computers and outside evaluators. He proposes having teachers’ evaluations consist of: 50 percent student state test–score growth, 35 percent outside evaluators’ observations, and only 15 percent school leader's assessment. Research indicates that the computer calculation that evaluates teachers based on test-score growth has a high error rate (35 percent), because it cannot account for the many other factors in children’s lives. Its accuracy is almost as random as a coin toss. The most reliable evaluators of teachers are experienced educators within schools, who know the context, curriculum and the stakeholders.

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by Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat New York

Few black and Hispanic students won admission to eight of the city's specialized high schools this year, leaving the schools' diversity figures unlikely to change as their admissions process faces continued scrutiny.

Just 5 percent of offers went to black students, and 7 percent went to Hispanic students — numbers identical to last year's admissions figures — though those two groups make up 70 percent of the city's eighth graders. Asian students won the biggest share of the offers, at 52 percent, while white students claimed 28 percent, according to numbers the Department of Education released Thursday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and civil-rights advocates have said those figures for black and Hispanic students are unacceptably low. In the past, they have expressed interest in moving away from the current admissions system for those schools, which relies solely on the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

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Tuesday, 20 January 2015 19:01

Don't blame the Common Core

If the Common Core were a person, I think we could be friends. I’d call her CeeCee and take her out for a drink. She needs it. I imagine CeeCee sobbing on my shoulder, saying something like, “I’m just trying to give all our kids a fair shot. Really I am!” Poor CeeCee. She means well and I think she got a lot more right than anyone is willing to admit, but we’re all just having too much fun hating on her.

It’s all the rage to bash Common Core these days. People see the standards, not as a well-meaning mom like I do, but as a thug with a gun in a dark alley shouting, “Make those kids read developmentally inappropriate texts or you’ll be sorry!” A Siena poll cited by Capital New York in mid-January found that 49 percent of New Yorkers statewide think Common Core implementation should be stopped. Not amended, just stopped. I’m left wondering how many of those voters can actually explain what Common Core is.

In New York City, the standards have become a convenient scapegoat for an education system plagued by big problems. Drastic economic inequality, uneven teaching and mass confusion about pretty much any directive handed down by the Department of Education all serve to create a broken education system. Common Core was intended as a long-term, partial solution to schools that vary widely in quality. If all kids are held to the same grade-by-grade expectations, the logic goes, we’ll be five steps closer to making sure all kids who receive a NYC education receive not just a comparable one, but also a great one.

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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.

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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."

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On Monday the Department of Education released new School Quality Reports for every city school, fulfilling its promise to abandon the labeling of each school with a single letter grade. For parents who appreciated this simple shorthand when seeking out the best school for their children, this new system may appear daunting. But for anyone who ever wondered how those grades were calculated or why some fluctuated wildly when all appeared stable on the ground, the new system will be a breath of fresh air.

The new School Quality Reports are comprised of two separate documents, both intended to make the existing school data more transparent to parents and educators alike. The School Quality Snapshot is a short and straightforward tool intended for parents. Much like InsideStats on Insideschools' profile pages, it seeks to present the most relevant information for parents in a way that is easy to read and understand. On this document, you won't see any statistical analyses or weighted comparisons, only the raw test scores, graduation rates and school survey results that matter to parents most.

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All pre-kindergarten through 2nd-graders are eligible to be tested for the city's gifted and talented programs—but the overwhelming number of test applicants come from Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Bronx children are tested at the lowest rate in the city, and some say it's because efforts to reach them are lacking.

"Information is not being disseminated widely," said Bronx parent Jonathan Ettrick, whose two children attended citywide G&T schools in Manhattan.

The tests are free but parents must fill out a short form called a Request For Testing (RFT). Families may submit online or at an enrollment office. The deadline to sign up for G&T testing for the 2015-2016 school year is midnight, Nov. 7th is Wednesday, Nov. 12. The Department of Education announced on Nov. 6 that it had extended the deadline from Nov. 7.

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If you haven't gotten your ticket for this weekend's specialized high school exam, don't panic. You'll be able to sit for the test without it, according to the Department of Education. The DOE posted a notice on its website saying that all scheduled students will be "welcomed and tested" even without a ticket. It also posted a list of test locations and times (pdf) for every middle school.

This week, some schools reported they had trouble printing tickets and others said they didn't get the tickets at all.

At Mark Twain middle school, it took the staff a day and a half to print out 350 tickets for its 8th-graders because of a glitch in the system, said Parent Coordinator Delgermaa Ganbaatar. "It has been very stressful. The system couldn't handle all the requests at once." The school finished printing at noon Friday, she said, and got them into the hands of students before they went home. Mark Twain sends more students annually to Stuyvesant High School than any other middle school.

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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.

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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.

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