exclusive

Probe underway after staff blows whistle on illicit credit recovery

A Philip Randolph High School is under investigation for credit accumulation fraud. (Credit: NYC DOE school web site)

A high school that posted suspicious swings in graduation rates in recent years is under investigation for giving students credits they didn’t earn.

Teachers and other staff members at A. Philip Randolph High School said they blew the whistle after seeing administrators abuse a practice that allows students to quickly make up credits in classes that they previously failed.

Department of Education officials said the Office of Special Investigations began probing A. Philip Randolph last month after Chancellor Dennis Walcott received several emails earlier this summer alleging illicit use of the practice, known as “credit recovery,” to artificially improve the school’s graduation numbers. After years of mediocre performance, the school’s graduation rate increased nearly 30 points two years ago and was one of the city’s highest.

This year, with less than a week before graduation day, school administrators ordered guidance counselors to enroll all failing seniors into online credit recovery courses so that they could graduate on time, one of the counselors said. She said the courses were crammed into one or two days and often went unsupervised.

When she and the school’s programming coordinators protested to administrators, they were rebuffed, the guidance counselor said.

“I said to them, ‘That is not right,’” she said. “You’re asking us to do something unethical.”

One teacher said he observed a group of credit recovery students huddled around a computer, searching online for the answers to test questions.

Another teacher, Joyce Stena, said one of her students attended her chemistry class so infrequently that the student not only failed the course but was declared ineligible to take the Regents exam.

And although state law requires students to pass Regents exams in order to earn course credits, Stena’s student still managed to graduate because she was enrolled in a credit recovery course.

“It’s frustrating,” Stena said. “What kind of message does that send to the rest of the students?”

Stena’s frustration crystallizes the controversy around credit recovery, an old practice with a new name that went unregulated in schools for years.

When used properly, education officials praise the policy as an opportunity to help students catch up on a few narrowly-missed credits in order to earn a diploma that they might not pursue after their senior year. Many of the courses are condensed and shortened and target specific areas where a student is deficient.

But credit recovery has come under increasing scrutiny as schools have experienced intense pressure to push students toward graduation, and in particular after the city began judging high schools in 2007 based in part on how many credits its students accumulate.

Amid mounting concerns, last year state education officials issued formal regulations for how schools should use credit recovery. Those regulations went into effect during the 2010-2011 school year and for the first time the DOE required schools to track credit recovery courses on student transcripts. Results from that data could be released as early as September, a spokesman said.

The data, which will show how widespread the use of credit recovery is, could challenge the credibility of the higher graduation rates that have taken place during the Bloomberg administration.

Critics of credit recovery say the pressures of accountability have induced widespread abuse of the practice in the city school system. Rather than providing a safety net for the few students for whom speedy makeup sessions would be appropriate, opponents say, the practice has merely allowed principals to inflate graduation rates and graduate students who are not ready for college. Less than a quarter of city graduates are well prepared for college, according to state data released in Feburary.

“This is an official recognition of lowered standards for academic credit,” said David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College law professor who specializes in education policy.

And many teachers, including those at A. Philip Randolph who sounded the alarm about abuses there, say the policy diminishes their work in the classroom.

The investigation into the school came after Walcott publicly invited teachers to contact him directly if they thought cheating was going on in their schools.

Henry Rubio, A. Philip Randolph’s principal since 2006, did not respond to several phone calls and email messages seeking comment.

The DOE is also conducting a larger sweep of audits that began in February. The audits target schools that have shown suspicious trends on its testing and graduation data.

A Philip Randolph, which opened in 1979 on the City College campus, seems to fit that profile. Two years ago, the school achieved a remarkable one-year gain in its graduation rate — climbing 30 percentage points to 86 percent. Last year, the graduation rate plummeted to 71 percent.

What upsets Stena the most, she said, is that students she is accountable for are being passed even if they don’t deserve it.

“If you want to hold me accountable, then you have to leave me alone,” she said. “Not go behind my back and pass students that I fail.”

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”