National newsletter

Chalkbeat’s national newsletter: The new testing debates look a lot like the old testing debates

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. Want to receive this in your inbox? Subscribe here.


The big story

Betsy DeVos’s education department has been on an ESSA plan approval tear. Last week, the department approved 16 states’ (and Puerto Rico’s) plans for complying with the federal education law, bringing the total number of plans that have gotten a green light to 35.

Some of those states have promised to use new metrics, such as absences and suspension rates, to help measure schools. But underneath talk of new ideas lurks the same old debates about how to use math and English tests.

We recently talked to Harvard professor Daniel Koretz, whose new book “The Testing Charade” makes the case against the way tests were used during the Bush and Obama administrations. His concern is that ESSA doesn’t change “the basic logic of the system” — the idea that pushing schools to boost test scores will improve the schools themselves.

Critics of testing in New York echoed those concerns yesterday. State officials there had hinted that they would apply for a federal program to give their tests a more radical makeover, but this week announced that they had abandoned the plan, in part because it would have been expensive. “I am frustrated,” one opt-out advocate said.

Others are skeptical about state plans for different reasons. “States mostly produced plans that are vague and noncommittal about how they will support low-performing schools,” according to a review of by Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-oriented consulting firm.

Those issues are holding up approval of California’s ESSA plan, the L.A. Times reported this week. Colorado is still waiting for a decision, too, months after appearing to bow to federal pressure to penalize schools where many students opt out of testing.


Local stories to watch

  • Poor families are leaving Denver — and charter schools may soon follow. KIPP says it’s looking to add schools outside the city where priced-out families are clustering.
  • Detroit is the latest city to rethink admission to its elite high schools. A placement exam has been the only factor; now the test will count for only 40 percent of admissions decisions.
  • New York City has a low bar for some turnaround schools. Graduation rates and test scores can actually fall at some schools and still land within the city’s targets.
  • In Memphis, the superintendent has raised the possibility of bringing charter operators into struggling district schools. That’s a big shift, since the district has battled openly with the charter sector. The state’s Achievement School District has been absorbing Memphis schools (and state dollars) and turning them over to charters for six years.

Matt’s research roundup

  • Scores (and hard work) on international tests pay off. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which shows that a country’s overall performance predicts economic growth — but so does students’ persistence over the course of a lengthy exam, which the researchers see as a measure of their “non-cognitive” skills. That give more credence to concerns from a long list of policymakers — including, most recently, Betsy DeVos — about the U.S.’s mediocre international rankings.
  • The worst principals aren’t sticking around. School principals don’t get studied nearly as much as teachers do, so a recent paper caught our eye. Focusing on Tennessee, the research found that less effective school leaders were especially likely to leave the job, often to take an assistant principal or classroom teacher position. That’s good news for students, as long as new principals are better than the ones they replaced. The best principals also had slightly higher-than-average turnover, in part because they were often promoted to central office positions.
  • Update: CHIP gets a six-year extension. Last week, we wrote about the research showing that children benefit educationally from health insurance programs. This week, as part of a deal to end the government shutdown, the Children’s Health Insurance Program was extended for six years.

Names to note

TNTP President Karolyn Belcher is stepping down in April and says she hopes to “lead an urban school district.” Jeffrey Villar will be the state-appointed “receiver” of schools in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Angélica Infante-Green is the subject of a campaign to make her New York City schools chief. Erika Soto Lamb is Democrats for Education Reform’s new national director for strategic communications.


DeVos watch

At an event held by a conservative legal group last week, DeVos was asked what she would do to promote the teaching of evolution in schools, presumably as opposed to creationism. “I’m not an advocate of any kind of national curriculum,” she said in response. “I continue to encourage the most local level to be able to have the kind of flexibility to meet individual students’ needs.”


The portfolio push

In Indianapolis, where the central school district is a darling of portfolio model advocates, nearly 4,000 students used a unified enrollment system for district and charter schools — the system’s first test. The state also released new data this week showing that only 55 percent of students who live in the Indianapolis Public School boundaries attend district schools.

Denver Public Schools has faced criticism from from national portfolio advocates and local charter leaders for not calling for new schools or expansion of charters this year. Our reporter Melanie Asmar breaks down the debate with responses from charter schools and the district.

The Memphis Education Fund — a member of a network of groups known as Education Cities, which supports the portfolio model — is working on principal training, teacher recruitment, helping single-site charter schools, and boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students.


What we’re reading

  • Teen pregnancy has plunged, but students who have kids of their own still struggle to graduate. Hechinger Report
  • The school board in Evanston, Illinois, is hiring a “director of black student success.” Daily Northwestern
  • Bullied students may soon be eligible for private-school vouchers in Florida. Tampa Bay Times
  • A leader of the Democracy Prep charter network is in a public debate with students about the importance of “standard English.” Democracy Prep
  • San Antonio is set to allow Democracy Prep to take over a low-performing district school. Folo Media
  • Nearly 12,000 students are scrambling after the closure of online charter school Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. WOSU
  • KIPP is headed to Miami, even as one of its charter schools elsewhere in Florida has struggled. WLRN
  • A helpful (and wonky) overview of research on race and school discipline. Brookings
  • The head of the National Council for Teacher Quality says education reformers should keep the focus on improving schools, rather than addressing poverty or racism. NCTQ
  • Los Angeles’s school board may aim for a compromise pick for new schools head. EdSource

Investigations

Two principals out in wake of sex abuse scandal. Two retirees to step up as interims

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Chicago Public Schools has removed one principal and reassigned another in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that has caused reverberations throughout the district.

After an internal audit of management practices at the school, Simeon Career Academy Principal Dr. Sheldon House was “removed” this afternoon, according to a release from the district. “In particular, the review focused on the school’s response to past events in which volunteers were able to coach athletics without the proper background checks,” said the statement from CPS CEO Janice Jackson. “Unfortunately, the audit found systemic issues in Simeon’s handling of volunteer background checks.”

Simeon, in Chatham, is an athletic powerhouse that has won multiple state titles. Alums of the 1,300-student school include Chicago-raised basketball stars Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker and State Rep. Mary E. Flowers, who graduated from Simeon in 1970. Though the Chicago Democrat graduated decades ago, she said she’s just as outraged as if it had happened while she was in school.

“I am devastated by it, but I’m not surprised about it,” said Flowers, who called for state oversight of the school district. “It’s not enough that they let them (principals) go.”

The district also announced it “reassigned” Sarah Goode STEM Academy principal Armando Rodriguez on Monday pending the outcome of an investigation. The decision followed the removal in June of a teacher after a student alleged possible sexual abuse. “CPS and DCFS are currently investigating to determine if abuse occurred, and the district will provide an update to the school community after the investigation is complete,” said the statement.

Located in Ashburn on the city’s Southwest Side, Sarah Goode STEM Academy is one of a handful of Chicago schools where students can earn dual credits in high school and college. The 860-student school is sponsored by IBM.

Both schools are level one schools, the next-to-highest rating in the district. 

CPS has selected David Gilligan, the retired former principal of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, to serve as Goode’s top administrator until the Local School Council selects a new principal.

At Simeon, Patricia Woodson has been brought out of retirement to serve as principal until a new administrator is named. Woodson previously served as the administrator in charge of Harlan, Marshall, and South Shore International schools.

The district’s widespread failing to have a system in place to protect student victims was first reported in early June in the Chicago Tribune. In the weeks since, CEO Jackson has announced several policy changes, including a widespread campaign to redo background checks of teachers, vendors, coaches, and volunteers. The district has also turned over its incident investigations to the office of Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

Reached Monday night, Flowers repeated calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Jackson, and board of education members to step down. She said that state lawmakers were planning another hearing in July.

“I think the parents voices need to be heard, and I’m looking forward to having some hearings in communities and at the schools…We expect (CPS CEO) Jackson to be there.”

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”