Complying with state law, city unties test scores from promotion rules

The city is planning to scrap a controversial policy that for the last 10 years has determined whether students move on to the next grade by their state test scores.

The new policy — which the Department of Education announced midway through the year’s testing period — would have principals, not test scores, decide whether students move on to the next grade. It represents a repudiation of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s flagship ban on “social promotion,” launched in his first term.

Officials said today that they anticipate that students would be held back under the new standards at the same rate as under the old rules. The bigger effect of the policy change, they said, would be a reduction of “test anxiety” in city schools, something that Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged during his campaign to make happen.

The department will also do away with a set of high-stakes tests that are administered at the end of summer school, in an attempt to ensure that struggling students get academic support, not additional test preparation, during the summer session. And officials said they would bar selective schools from using use state test scores as a main factor for admissions decisions starting next year.

Assuming that the Panel for Educational Policy, whose majority is appointed by de Blasio, approves the policies next month, the changes would go into effect for promotion decisions that are made this spring. That means scores on the state tests that students will complete at the end of this month likely will not be the “primary or major factor” in determining whether students move to the next grade.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña has signaled for months that changes were coming, they did not announce a new policy before the tests began last week — even after state lawmakers barred the use of test scores to make promotion decisions. (New York City has been the only district to base promotion on scores.) The silence left parents and advocates anxious about how much this year’s test scores would count.

Today, parents said they were relieved to hear about the policy adjustment.

“I’m glad they’re finally opening their eyes and realizing that the state test is not the only way grade a kid,” said Dolores Gonzalez, the mother of three girls, one of which was held back two years ago because her state test scores weren’t high enough.

Under the current policy, a low score on the state English and math tests determine whether students are promoted to the next grade or retained for summer school. The summer school test, administered in August, determines if students get held back a grade. In recent years, about 10 percent of students, or 32,000, were retained, while around 8,000 students were required to repeat a grade, about the same rate as before Bloomberg introduced his promotion policy.

Under the new policy, test scores will be still allowed to count, but they can’t be the “primary or major factor,” in keeping with the new state law. Principals will now have to set their own school-level standards to determine whether students need to attend summer school, and schools will have to compile portfolios to show whether struggling students should ultimately be retained.

Officials say the new approach creates a fairer standard to evaluate student learning, reduces testing anxiety for families, and empowers teachers and principals by giving them more say in an important moment of a child’s academic life.

Emily Weiss, senior executive director for performance at the Department of Education, said the previous policy sent the wrong message about what was valued in the classroom.

“Our current promotion policy has been understood by many students and families to mean that student work throughout the year doesn’t matter as much as a single test at the end of the year,” Weiss said. “That is something that this policy is clearly intended to change.”

The announcement drew praise from a wide array of groups, including the teachers union and the advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence.

“It is time that New York City takes into account all the work a child does the rest of the year, in the classroom, where the real learning takes place,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “Changing the promotion policy is just common sense.”

But the move wasn’t universally embraced. StudentsFirstNY, a group established to ensure that Bloomberg’s education policies continue after he left office, said the proposal “missed the point” and suggested that even more students should be held back. Executive Director Jenny Sedlis pointed to the 47 percent of students who scored a Level 1, or “not proficient,” on last year’s Common Core-aligned math and reading tests as a reason to keep the current promotion policy in place.

Officials pushed back against the suggestion that their proposed changes would lower standards. In a statement, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said, “This new way forward maintains accountability, but mitigates the unintended consequences of relying solely on a single test.”

Under the new policy, the city would also nix a $1.8  million testing contract with Questar Assessment, Inc. to create summer school exams that students would take as a last chance to be promoted. Officials said the high-stakes nature of the tests had turned the six-week summer school program into little more than an extended test preparation session.

The announcement does not change the fact that state test scores will factor into some teachers’ annual ratings.

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End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”