Alternate Route

School without Regents exams says mayor should spread its model

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at City-As-School High School, which is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The Consortium will help run one of the new "affinity groups."

Hunched-over high school students across the city will be shading in multiple-choice bubbles and dashing off essays next week as they take the state Regents exams.

But last Friday, students at City-As-School High School in Manhattan offered a very different vision of assessment.

During a student-organized conference meant to showcase the school’s instructional model, students read monologues from the point of view of Chinese immigrants, screened documentaries they had produced on gun violence and harassment, argued for changes to the city’s school-discipline policies, and described internships where they had cared for injured animals and assisted kindergarten teachers.

Such projects stand in for tests at City-As-School, which is one of more than two-dozen city high schools that have state permission to tie graduation to student work instead of Regents-exam scores.

As Mayor de Blasio promises a school system that relies less on standardized tests and more on portfolio-style assessments, students and staff at City-As-School suggested Friday that their school could serve as a model. At the same time, the school’s experience may hint at some of the difficulties of moving away from traditional tests.

“I feel like now is our moment, because there is so much dissatisfaction about standardized testing,” said John Antush, who teaches a class called “Economics and Education.” “I think the world is on our side.”

City-As-School, a four-decade-old public school for older students who transferred out of other high schools, is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The consortium is a longstanding coalition of 28 high schools (all but two are in the city) with state waivers that allow their students to complete intensive projects rather than take the Regents exams (except for English, which they still must pass).

The consortium enjoys the backing of the city’s teachers union and education department, which has lobbied the state to let 22 additional city schools that have been trained in the consortium’s assessment model also skip the Regents tests.

While de Blasio hasn’t explicitly cited the consortium model, he too has called for more schools to use student-work portfolios to assess student learning.

Students in Antush’s economics class, who organized Friday’s event, said de Blasio should apply elements of their school’s model, which they call “performance-based education,” throughout the school system. They made petitions to that effect, which they plan to deliver to City Hall.

Classes at the City-As-School are ungraded. Instead, if students meet the class requirements and complete a culminating project, they earn credit.

To graduate, they must earn 40 class credits, pass the English Regents exam, and complete a portfolio. The portfolio includes an internship report that involved research, a literary essay, science experiment, math project, career plan, and a college application.

When students choose to include projects in their graduation portfolios, they must defend them before evaluation panels that can include teachers from other consortium schools. The projects are evaluated according to rubrics used by the entire consortium.

Alexandra Garcia, 18, transferred to City-As-School in September from Brooklyn Technical High School, where she said she struggled to keep up with the heavy workload. She said that while City-As-School is “not as hard” overall, the portfolios can be more demanding than traditional tests.

“I think it’s actually a little harder to stand in front of a group of people and talk about what you wrote and know it well enough to prove your point,” she said. “You can’t just guess.”

Because teachers are freed from having to cover all the material that might appear on the state exams, they can design courses that explore particular topics in depth, such as transcendentalism or immigration, students and staff said.

The school’s defining feature — and the source of its name — is its focus on real-world learning. Students spend up to 20 hours and two to three days per week interning at about 300 different sites, according to Principal Alan Cheng.

Those sites range from bakeries and flower shops to museums, law offices, and hospitals. Unlike at most high schools, students earn academic credit for the unpaid internships if they complete all the requirements, including the final reports.

“You learn so much hands-on that you take back with you,” said Jennifer Matos, 17, who interned at a wildlife rehabilitation center. “If you’re learning in a school environment, just learning definitions, you don’t remember that.”

But if City-As-School reveals the benefits of a hands-on, mostly test-free model of learning, it suggests some of the challenges as well.

First, the amount of academic content students glean from their internships — which they describe in reports that can go in their graduation portfolios — seems to vary widely according to the sites they choose.

Also, the school’s deep-dive classes miss out on some of the breadth of material covered by classes subject to the state tests.

And while students’ graduation portfolio work is judged by panels using the consortium-wide rubrics, they may still enjoy some flexibility in grading not afforded to students who must pass the state’s standardized tests.

“It is somewhat subjective,” Antush said about the school’s grading system.

While City-As-School’s experiential learning model has attracted the interest of other districts, the school earned a C on its most recent progress report and an F in the section that factors in credit accumulation, attendance trends, and scores on the English Regents exam.

Cheng said a recent quality review of the school, which commends its environment and leadership, offers a fuller picture of the school. But the staff is also “actively working to make improvements” in the areas cited by the progress report, he said.

He also said City-As-School graduates who go to college tend to remain enrolled at higher rate than graduates of other transfer schools — mirroring higher-than-average college persistence rates for consortium graduates as a whole.

Cheng said those rates stem from the consortium’s teaching and assessment model.

“It certainly is a higher standard,” he said, which, “more closely replicates the kind of skills students will need once they leave high school.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.