damned if you do

State policy an obstacle to charter school serving English learners

A charter school that hoped to focus on students who don’t speak English is changing tactics after being told by the state that it cannot give admissions preference to the students it wants to attract.

Though New York City’s charter schools admit relatively few English Language Learners in comparison to district schools, Inwood Academy for Leadership intended to be the exception. When Principal Christina Hykes applied for a charter, she envisioned a school where half the students were English Language Learners and half were general education students, making Inwood Academy the first charter school in the city to propose such a model.

Hykes planned to achieve this balance by giving admissions preference to ELL students living in Inwood, something Department of Education officials agreed she could do. State law encourages charters to focus on students “at risk of academic failure,” and students with little English seemed like prime candidates. They routinely have lower scores on the state tests than their English-speaking peers and are less likely to graduate high school.

But officials at the State Education Department disagreed with the city’s reading of the law, telling the DOE and Hykes that ELL students don’t fall in the “at risk” category. As a result, Inwood Academy’s application would have to lose all the language giving ELLs enrollment preference if it wanted to get a charter.

“Because a student is an ELL doesn’t necessarily mean they’re at risk. That’s their [SED’s] interpretation,” said Michael Duffy, director of the city’s office of charter schools.

“What’s ironic is that it seems like at the Regents level there’s a real interest in seeing charter schools that can reach out to ELLs in the way Inwood was trying to do,” he said.

According to the state, ELL students are considered “high needs,” but not “at risk.” To bridge this distinction, the Board of Regents recommended last week that the state legislature raise the charter cap to encourage the growth of charter schools targeting “high needs” high school students,” said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for SED.

A change in law could offer hope to future charter operators looking to focus their attention on specific student groups like ELLs.

Charter schools won’t hold lotteries until April, leaving state officials time to change their interpretation of current law and the city time to lobby them, Duffy said.

In the meantime, Hykes has modified Inwood’s application enough to get it approved by the Board of Regents last week.

Inwood’s charter now says it will give admissions preference to students living in District 6 who get low scores — 1s and 2s — on the state math and English exams. Because of their low scores, the state does consider these students to be “at risk.”

“We’re being specific about how we recruit,” Hykes said. “We know where the need is. We’re going to have our meetings in the projects. What we’ll try to do is reach out to recent immigrants who came here in third or fourth grade. But there’s a chance we still won’t get 50 percent ELL.”

Without being able to give preference to ELL students, Hykes could land 110 fifth graders who have low test scores but are English-speakers.

“We would also like that language back in our application to show we’re devoted to these students,” Hykes said.

Traditional public schools don’t face the same admissions restrictions charter schools do. The high school Inwood Academy is using as a model, Gregorio Luperon High School in Washington Heights, only admits Spanish-speaking students who have lived in the U.S. for fewer than two years.

“There are criticisms out there about charters not enrolling enough ELL students, and I think those are valid criticisms,” Duffy said. “Here you have a school like Inwood that wants to go the extra distance and they’re being stymied and it doesn’t make sense.”

chalkbeat cheat sheet

All eyes are on Denver’s teacher pay negotiations as a strike looms. Here’s where things stand and how to tune in.

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating for more than a year against a backdrop of widespread protests over teacher pay.

Now, the union is inching toward a strike.

The issues at play are narrower than they are in Los Angeles, where teachers are striking over pay but also class sizes and school resources. In Denver, the union and district agreed on a general contract last year. Now, the sides are focused on the district’s complicated pay-for-performance system, with the union pushing for higher salaries and more opportunities for raises.

The union says it will call for a strike vote on Jan. 19 if a new agreement can’t be reached.

In the meantime, negotiations in Denver are particularly interesting because state law requires bargaining to happen in public. If you’re just getting caught up, or want to tune in as the back-and-forth continues, here’s what you should know.

When are the union and district set to negotiate, and how can I watch?

There are three more sessions on the schedule.

  • Tuesday, Jan. 15, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • Thursday, Jan. 17, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
  • Friday, Jan. 18, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

All three of those sessions will take place at the Acoma Campus, at 1617 S. Acoma St., and are open to the public.

You can also watch online. The district often livestreams the negotiations — here’s where you can find them. It doesn’t always, because doing so takes staff time.

If the district isn’t livestreaming, the union will set up a Facebook Live with a cell phone and a tripod, but it will be of lower quality. Here’s the union’s Facebook page.

If you don’t see anything in either place, it probably means the two sides are caucusing, or meeting in private. Those meetings aren’t streamed.

If you tune in, you’ll see members of both negotiating teams. The union’s team includes Pam Shamburg, Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s executive director; Corey Kern, DCTA’s deputy executive director; Henry Roman, DCTA’s president; Rob Gould, a Denver teacher; and several other teachers.

The district’s negotiation team includes Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer; Susana Cordova, superintendent; and Michelle Berge, general counsel.

What are the union and district at odds over?

The two sides are negotiating the contract that governs the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable. It pays teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position.

But giving up the incentives altogether would mean giving up tax money raised specifically for teacher salaries. In 2005, Denver voters passed a tax increase to fund ProComp, and the ballot language was specific about how the tax revenue would be used, including to pay teachers for things like working in hard-to-fill positions, increasing their teaching skills, and earning positive evaluations. District officials project the tax will raise $33 million next year.

Where do things stand?

The timing: The current agreement is set to expire on Jan. 18, and union leaders have said they will call for a strike vote on Jan. 19 if a new agreement cannot be reached.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association informed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment on Jan. 8 of its intent to strike. A union must give the state 20 days notice, which means the earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28.

The basics: The biggest sticking point is money. Buoyed by widespread protests over teacher pay in Colorado and other states, the Denver union has asked the district to invest about $30 million more of its $1 billion budget into teacher compensation.

The district’s offer as of Jan. 11 would invest $23 million more into teacher pay. District officials have said some of that money will come from increased state funding, but $7 million would come from cuts to the district’s central office, where many administrators work.

The salary schedule: The union has proposed returning to a more traditional salary schedule. The maximum base salary would be $100,000, which a teacher with a doctorate could earn after  20 years of positive evaluations.

After offering less than that for months, the district’s Jan. 11 proposal matched that $100,000 maximum base salary. Earning it would require a teacher with a doctorate to have 30 years of positive evaluations.

The base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree on the district’s schedule as of Jan. 11 would be $45,500. The union’s schedule would start at $45,000.

The union’s salary schedule differs from the one the district has proposed in one major way: it has more “lanes,” which allow teachers to get raises more frequently.

The “lanes” represent a teacher’s education level. The salary schedule also has “steps,” which represent a teacher’s years of satisfactory evaluations.

The union’s proposed salary schedule has nine “lanes” and 20 “steps.” The district’s Jan. 11 offer has only six “lanes” but 30 “steps.” In the union’s view, the district’s offer doesn’t give teachers enough of a salary boost for furthering their own education.

The district’s proposal is an attempt to diversify the ways teachers can get a pay raise. Teachers could move a lane by getting an advanced license or serving for 10 consecutive years, in addition to earning a higher degree or National Board certification.

About those bonuses: The district and the union also disagree on the size of the bonuses and incentives. The union favors larger base salaries and smaller incentives, with some as small as $1,000.

The district has proposed three different incentives at $2,500 each. One would be for teachers who work in high-poverty schools, where more than 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Another would be for teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, such as special education and secondary math, and teachers who teach in Spanish.

The third $2,500 incentive would be in the form of a retention bonus for teachers who return to work at a set of 30 schools the district and the union deem “highest priority.”

About 72 percent of Denver teachers would qualify for one of the two $2,500 incentives, district officials said on Jan. 11. About 37 of those same teachers would qualify for both incentives.

A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree who gets both incentives — say, a first-year special education teacher in a high-poverty school — could make $50,500 under the district’s proposal.

How did we get here?

Here’s a timeline if you’re looking to dive even deeper.

high stakes

Newark’s rush to create new magnet-school admissions test is raising eyebrows. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark is creating a new admissions test for its popular magnet schools.

In Newark, a new high-stakes exam that every eighth-grader will take next month is raising questions — and not the multiple-choice kind.

The district has been rushing to complete the test, which the superintendent revealed at a parent conference in December, so that students can take it next month. It will determine, along with other factors, which students are admitted to the city’s coveted magnet schools in the fall.

The implications for students’ futures are huge: Students who attend magnets are far more likely than their peers in traditional high schools to graduate and earn college degrees. Yet officials have said little publicly about who’s developing the test, how schools will use it, or even why it’s necessary.

“Why make kids take an additional test unless there’s a very good reason for it,” said Jonathan Taylor, a research analyst at Hunter College in New York City who has studied that city’s controversial high-school entrance exam. “They already have to take enough of these tests.”

The exam appears to be aimed at making Newark’s magnet schools more selective, based on Superintendent Roger León’s belief that they have been admitting some students who are under-qualified or insufficiently interested in the schools’ themes.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” León said last month. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

But the data show that Newark’s six magnet schools already enroll the city’s highest-achieving students (based on state test scores), and very few students who are still learning English or have disabilities, who tend to perform less well on standardized tests. León’s move comes as New Jersey’s governor tries to cut back on high-stakes testing, and the mayor of nearby New York City has proposed eliminating a similar gatekeeping test entirely.

Newark’s “magnet schools are definitely enrolling different kids — fewer English language learners, fewer special-education students, fewer students who eligible for free lunch,” said Christopher Tienken, a professor of education administration at Seton Hall University. “I think they should actually be looking at measures that increase the diversity of the schools.”

Beyond the purpose of the test, experts also raised questions about its design, as the district appears to be creating it in-house with the help of local educators. Tests used for high-stakes purposes such as admissions decisions are expected to meet accepted standards and be carefully vetted.

“The test should be validated before using it,” Taylor said. “You don’t have a test, start admitting kids, and then look to see 30 years later, ‘Well, gee, is this a valid test?’”

Officials may have answers to these questions, but they haven’t yet shared them publicly. The district did not respond to questions for this story or make any officials available for comment.

For now, Chalkbeat has rounded up everything we know about the test so far. And we spoke with experts to find out the best practices when introducing a new exam like this — along with the risks.

What’s on the test?

The test will measure students’ English and math skills.

The district is creating the exam itself, with assistance from principals and other school staffers. The educators helped write math questions and shared essay prompts their schools have used to assess students’ reading and writing skills, said Carla Stephens, principal of Bard High School Early College–Newark.

León “had many calls and meetings where he has been consulting with the magnet school principals about the test,” said Stephens, who shared her magnet school’s writing prompt with the district.

The test will also try to assess students’ interest in each magnet school’s unique focus, which includes science, history, and the arts. León, who attended a magnet school, has said he believes some magnet students lack a real passion for the schools’ themes.

“Magnet high schools were always supposed to be a high school where students had an interest in what that specialty was,” he said. “We want the admissions test is to be able to gauge that.”

Who will take it?

All Newark Public Schools eighth-graders will sit for the test on Friday, Feb. 15.

They will do so in their own schools during the school day — a decision that experts applauded. Other districts have been criticized for administering high-school and college admissions tests on the weekends, making it hard for some students to participate.

All non-district students hoping to attend to a magnet school will take the test on Saturday, Feb. 16.

How will schools use it?

Magnet schools will consider the exam scores as they review and rank applicants. The rankings will determine which students are admitted for the 2019-20 academic year.

The scores will be considered alongside factors the schools already look at, including students’ grades, state test scores, and attendance records. Some schools also interview applicants and assess their writing and math skills, while Arts High School holds auditions.

Experts endorsed the district’s decision to have the schools use the exams in conjunction with other admissions criteria, which they said provides a more complete picture of each applicant.

However, school staffers said they have not been told how much weight each of those factors will be given — and whether schools or the district will decide that.

At one of the city’s most selective magnet schools, Science Park, parents and administrators clashed last year over how much weight should be given to applicants’ state PARCC scores. In a compromise, the school lowered their weight, making the PARCC scores count for 70 percent of applicants’ ranking. Now, Science Park and the other magnets will have to factor the new entrance exam into the mix.

Traditional high schools will also use the admissions test scores, León has said. The scores will determine eligibility for new gifted-and-talented programs that León has directed those schools to establish.

Is the test ready?

By the looks of it, not quite.

Students were originally scheduled to take the test this week, but the district quietly postponed the test until February. The district chalked that up to “logistical modifications.” But as recently as last month, officials said they were still revising the exam.

According to someone who spoke with the superintendent, part of the problem was that the school staffers who helped write the test borrowed heavily from assessments that high-school students take during the year.

“He said the questions were basically copied and pasted,” the person said. “It wasn’t good, so they had to redo it.”

And at a parent meeting this week at one of the most selective magnet schools, Science Park High School, Principal Kathleen Tierney said the test is “still being vetted,” according to an attendee.

What do experts say?

Researchers who study testing asked several pointed questions about Newark’s new high-stakes exam.

First, they wanted to know how officials decided it was necessary. They noted that the magnets already look at students’ grades and state test scores.

Taylor, the research analyst at Hunter College, pointed out that entrance exams can be less effective in identifying promising students than officials realize, calling into question their necessity. In a recent study, he found that the exam used to determine who gets into New York City’s elite “specialized” high schools was actually less predictive of students’ ninth-grade achievement than their grades or state test scores from middle school.

The experts also questioned how the district is ensuring the exam meets industry standards — especially when it’s being developed on such a tight timeline.

One key standard is that a given exam does what it’s intended to do; for instance, help a school predict which students will be able to keep up with its rigorous academic program. Another standard is that the exam is not biased against any group, such as girls or black or Hispanic students.

Some experts advised against using the test results in high-stakes admissions decisions before it has been shown to meet those standards.

“What they should be doing is piloting this test for at least one year,” said Tienken, the Seton Hall professor. “Test design is a multi-year process.”

Kurt F. Geisinger, director of the Buros Center on Testing at the University of Nebraska, said that trying out an exam on a sample of students before its full launch can help detect biases — but that can be difficult to do without having questions leak out. Either way, he said, the district should expect to continuously improve the exam.

“These things do take time to build,” he said. “You can’t expect them to be perfect year one.”