The New York City charter school that made the largest gains on state English tests also made an unprecedented decision to grade its own students’ exams.
English scores surged at Teaching Firms of America Charter School this year, with proficiency rates doubling from nearly 20 percent in 2014 to nearly 40 percent this year — a crucial one for the school to prove itself. Meanwhile, the school also opted out of an external scoring system meant to curb score inflation and bring charter school scoring in line with how exams from district schools are graded.
No one has accused the Brooklyn school of improper testing or grading practices. State officials say they have not received any complaints of cheating; city officials said a monitor visited the school during the tests to ensure compliance with testing rules; and the school’s math scores actually fell.
Founding principal Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II said he was confident that the English gains are an accurate reflection of how far his students have come.
“The growth is the result of authentic instruction,” he said. “That’s what happens when you don’t do test prep.”
Still, Teaching Firms’ unique position as the only school to grade its own state tests this year raises questions about why charter schools are not held to the same scoring standards as other schools in the city.
All New York City schools are responsible for scanning multiple-choice answers into a centralized data system. To ensure consistent scoring and prevent cheating, the city has long kept district schools from scoring their own students’ written responses, instead requiring that schools send teachers to centralized scoring centers to grade tests without knowledge of who took them.
Charter schools, the privately run but publicly funded schools that are exempt from some state regulations, aren’t allowed to participate. They are considered their own districts by the State Education Department and therefore have to handle their own scoring.
But for years, the city’s charter school sector has run a program that mimics the district’s and includes a third-party vendor to monitor the grading in real time. Schools invariably opt in so that their all-important scores aren’t vulnerable to challenges.
“Most charters are going to jump at joining the consortium because it’s a way to both have credibility in your scores, but also ease your mind that there are professionals who know how to do this,” said Constance Bond, executive director of St. Hope Leadership Academy, a charter school in Harlem.
Id-Din said he decided to allow his staff to score students’ answer sheets because he wanted teachers to better understand the state’s test-development and grading process and because it saved money for the school.
The choice was above-board, he said, because state regulations leave charter schools free to decide how to score their students’ tests.
“We took advantage of what every other school like ours can take advantage of,” said Id-Din, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s informal reader advisory board.
Still, no other charter school scored its own tests, according to the New York City Charter School Center, which sponsors the test scoring consortium that allows schools to outsource their scoring duties. “To the best of my knowledge, no school has self-scored other than Teaching Firms” in the decade since the consortium was created, said James Merriman, the head of the Charter Center.
Teaching Firms’ unilateral decision to score its own tests also reveals a new gap in the state’s ability to oversee charter schools. Although city charter schools have not traditionally opted to grade their own tests, the Teaching Firms case shows that schools are allowed to do so without oversight.
The city education department, which directly oversees TFOA and recently vowed to work proactively to stamp out academic impropriety, declined to comment on the school’s decision. A spokesman confirmed that the department sent monitors to the school during testing but did not oversee the school’s grading process.
Teaching Firms is under pressure to convince the department that it should remain open. In 2014, less than one in five third-grade students earned an English score indicating proficiency. The scores were low enough that city reviewers refused to renew the school’s charter for a full five years, and instead gave it just over two years to show improvement or face closure.
The latest test results indicate that Teaching Firms students are making fast progress in English, though not in math. While the average proficiency rate at city charter schools inched up from 28 percent to 29 percent in English, the students who were in TFOA’s third-grade class in 2014 saw their proficiency rate shoot up 30 points this year. The school took a step back on the math tests, with its proficiency rate dropping from 28 percent to 22 percent.
Sol Stern, a contributing editor for City Journal who has written about test security issues for more than a decade, said those English gains appeared to deserve further scrutiny.
“It could be the students are just starting out behind,” Stern said. “But it happens so rarely that it just doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.”