Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Many questions remain as to the reliability of the state’s new list of struggling schools and why some schools were taken off the list and others not

On January 17, 2019, Commissioner Elia released a new list of “struggling” schools under the new accountability system created by the state to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, that replaced NCLB in 2016.  As an article in Chalkbeat explained,

Eighty-four of the city’s schools are on the lowest rung — known as “Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools” — and will be required to craft improvement plans approved by the state. The remaining 40 schools are only in need of “targeted” support and will face less intense oversight.

Yet the state formula used to develop this list of struggling or CSI schools is complex, confusing, and unreliable. Moreover, the Commissioner exempted certain schools that would otherwise have been identified as CSI schools through a decision-making process that is opaque.

Thirty-eight in NYC and 84 statewide were designated as “good standing #”, meaning according to the spreadsheet that their “Accountability status is based on a finding by the Commissioner of extenuating or extraordinary circumstances”. Why certain schools were taking off the list of struggling schools by the Commissioner due to “extenuating circumstances” and others were not is nowhere explained.

There were at least two very controversial issues that repeatedly were raised by parents, teachers and advocates during the hearings and comment period that preceded the adoption of the ESSA state plan. First was how opt out students would be counted, which is an especially critical issue since about 20% of the state’s eligible students in grades 3-8 have opted out of the state exams every year since 2015.

NYSAPE, Class Size Matters and other groups opposed the state plan to count these students as having failed on the state exams – and instead proposed a different system, called Opportunity Learn index, which would measure whether schools provided their students with the conditions for success.
If test scores had to be used, as the federal law required, then we recommended that the scores of opt out student scores should be assumed as average for that school and their subgroup.

The state rejected our proposals, however,  and instead adopted a complex formula that incorporates two variables – one called the Weighted Average Achievement Index, which counts opt out students as having failed in terms of test score proficiency, and another called the Core Subject Performance Index, which removes them from the formula entirely.  These two variables are combined to create a Composite Performance Level, in a mathematical process that is difficult to understand. [See this memo that attempts to explain how the two variables will be combined.]

Sure enough, at least two highly regarded NYC schools, Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (BCS) and Central Park East One (CPE1) both designated by InsideSchools as “staff picks".  A letter sent by BCS school leaders to parents pointed at that "for the first time, New York State used a formula for calculating proficiency on the state tests where students who did not take the exam counted at the lowest level for schoolwide accountability to generate a Composite Performance Index.  At BCS last year, …76% of parents opted their children out of the Middle school exams.”

They added that BCS serves 36% students with special needs, much higher than the city average, and that while “incoming students have, on average, lower 5th grade Math and Reading levels than the city …  Our internal data shows that all students make progress every year at our school, even if they are not yet at grade level standards.”

Similarly, CPE 1 is well-respected as the oldest public progressive school in NYC. About 80 percent of its students boycotted the state’s English and math exams last year – which makes any attempt to evaluate the school’s quality on the basis of its test scores untenable.  In fact, both these two school earned above average “impact” scores from DOE of  0.55 and 0.51 respectively, which attempts to adjust for the racial, ethnic, disability and poverty level of its students.

An op-ed by Tish Doggett and Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, parents with children attending these two schools, argued that the NY State Education Department privileged narrow indicators such as scores on state exams while ignoring factors such as their students’ racial and socioeconomic background, which affect test scores and absenteeism  and these measures that profoundly affect the accountability status of a school. They proposed a more holistic alternative for assessing schools: “When will we measure whether a school meets state mandates for art and music? How small (or large) class sizes are? The number of guidance counselors and sports teams available? Whether there is a library?”

NYC schools were not the only ones to protest their CSI designations.  In a letter sent to Associate Commissioner Ira Schwartz, Michael J. Hynes, the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District on Long Island, called the CSI list an "abomination" and demanded answers to why five of his district’s elementary schools were on the list, despite his appeal and the fact that only 10-20% of students at these schools took the state exams.  “I have several questions that need to be answered before we possibly move forward with any next steps.  I also need answers about what happens if, as a school district, we choose NOT to move forward with the nonsensical requirements associate with this false designation.”

In a statement to the community, Hynes related that he appealed to “SED a few weeks ago when we found out our schools were potentially going to have this ridiculous designation. Earlier this week we heard our appeal was denied. I’d like to know why our appeal wasn’t accepted…and I’m just finding out that several others were approved. I’m thankful other schools were approved based on “extenuating or extraordinary circumstances”. I believe ours should as well.  It should be public knowledge since this list is.”

Another controversial aspect of NY State’s accountability formula relates to how high schools with four-year graduation rates lower than 67% would be rated—especially in the case of transfer schools, which enroll students who are already overage and under-credited by the time they enter these schools.

Many parents, teachers and students from the transfer schools flooded the state hearings, to beg the Commissioner to give their schools special credit for having saved them from dropping out altogether, by offering them small classes and the personal attention and close support that they had been unable to receive in their previous high schools. [See the account of the Brooklyn hearings here, and Manhattan hearings here.]

In a joint letter written to Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa on July 10, 2017, state and city officials maintained that applying the same standard to transfer schools would be harmful and unfair:
We are deeply troubled by the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) intention to designate all transfer schools that have a 6-year graduation rate below 67% as failing schools. We believe that the State’s proposed plan will greatly limit the ability of transfer schools to carry out their mission of supporting NYC’s most vulnerable students.

So we took a closer look at how the new accountability standards assessed NYC transfer schools and found that these schools were nearly four times more likely than non-transfer schools statewide and citywide to be designated as needing comprehensive support.

They were also five times more likely to receive “good standing #”, meaning they were removed from the struggling schools list based on the Commissioner’s decision that there were of “extenuating circumstances.” It is still unclear what those specific circumstances were, and why some transfer schools were taken off the list and others not.

In the table below, we outline the accountability status and the percent of schools statewide, citywide, and NYC transfer schools that received each type of designation.

Table 1. Accountability Status for Schools Statewide, Citywide, and NYC Transfer Schools

18-19 Accountability Status for School

% of schools statewide
(4280 schools)

% of all NYC schools
(1492 schools)

% of all NYC transfer schools
(50 schools)

(Comprehensive Support and Improvement)
(Good Standing)
(Good Standing #)
(Targeted Support and Improvement)
(Targeted Support and Improvement#)
# - Accountability status is based on a finding by the Commissioner of extenuating or extraordinary circumstances. Data drawn from 2018-2019 Accountability Status Report. Charter schools not included in analysis. Data available here: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/accountability/essa/documents/AccountabilityStatus2018-19.xlsx

Commissioner Elia had promised last year that she would take the special status of transfer schools into account when considering whether to put them into Receivership, which can involve radical changes in governance and staffing:

“As a result of this adjustment, schools that have been identified as being among the lowest performing for more than three consecutive years are placed under Receivership. Alternative schools (e.g., Transfer high schools and Special Act schools) will not be automatically placed into Receivership; instead, the Commissioner will work with the district, should any alternative school be identified as among the lowest-performing for more than three consecutive years, to determine the most appropriate interventions for that school. " (page 111)

However, the disproportionate number of NYC transfer schools on the CSI list questions Commissioner Elia’s commitment to acknowledge and respect the special nature of these schools. Without more transparency, it is impossible to know why certain transfer schools were given special dispensation and others were not, as listed below.

NYC transfer schools that received “CSI”:

  • Bronx Arena High School
  • Bronx Regional High School
  • Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community
  • Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School
  • New Directions Secondary School
  • North Queens Community High School
  • Olympus Academy
  • Providing Urban Leaders Success in Education High School
  • South Brooklyn Community High School
  • West Brooklyn Community High School

NYC transfer schools that received “Good Standing #."
  • Bronx Haven High School
  • Brooklyn Frontiers High School
  • English Language Learners and International Support
  • Liberation Diploma Plus
  • Research and Service High School

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