test tampering

Cheating allegations rise under de Blasio, continuing a Bloomberg-era trend

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Allegations of test-tampering and grade-changing by educators this year are on a pace to exceed the number of complaints made in 2014, continuing a rise in such allegations that began during the previous administration and has persisted under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The allegations come as New York City has scrambled to respond to a string of reports this year involving academic fraud and grade inflation, such as a high school that let students earn credits without receiving instruction and an elementary school principal who forged student answers on a state exam. Last month, the education department established a $5 million task force to closely monitor schools’ test scores and how they assign credits.

The rise in complaints does not automatically signal a rise in misconduct; it could also indicate that staffers are making greater use of an anonymous email complaint system, for instance. Still, the growing number of allegations suggests that some teachers and principals continue to feel intense pressure to show test score, pass rate, and graduation rate gains, even as de Blasio has tried to de-emphasize those numbers as the primary measures of schools’ success.

“Habits are stronger than words until someone comes in and says you can’t do that anymore,” said Lehman High School math teacher Jeffrey Greenberg, explaining that de Blasio’s rhetorical shifts did not translate into different grading policies or credit-assigning practices at his school last year.

Data: Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation, Credit: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

By early August, more than 300 complaints that fall into the category of educator test-tampering or grade-changing had been filed with the office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation, an independent office that handles adult misconduct charges in the school system. That is the same number of such complaints made during all of 2014, making it very likely that this year’s total will be higher.

Last year’s allegations already exceeded the number from 2013, continuing a trend that began under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under Bloomberg, who rated and closed some schools largely on the basis of test scores and graduation rates, the number of educator cheating allegations more than tripled, according to a 2011 New York Times analysis.

De Blasio scrapped his predecessor’s A-to-F school ratings and launched a program to revamp rather than close low-performing schools. However, those schools still could face closure or state takeover if they do not show academic gains within a short period. And despite de Blasio’s ambivalence about test scores, they may soon play a larger role in teacher evaluations under a new state law pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Things are getting worse,” said Arthur Goldstein, an English language teacher at Francis Lewis High School, referring to the state’s teacher evaluations. “The pressure they put on teachers is just terrible.”

The cheating allegations represent only a portion of the complaints made to Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigation. Last year, his office fielded 5,287 complaints — the most in its 25-year history.

The office investigated just three of last year’s 300 test-tampering and grade-changing complaints and did not substantiate any of them, according to Condon’s spokeswoman, Regina Romain. This year, 10 of those complaints are under investigation, she said.

Still, the office refers most academic fraud allegations to the education department’s investigative unit, the Office of Special Investigations. Education Department spokesman Harry Hartfield would not say how many cheating complaints the agency has received or investigated this year.

The department’s new six-member “Academic Integrity Task Force” will examine the way schools award credits, including their use of credit-recovery courses, which allow students to earn credits for classes they previously failed. While credit recovery has come under new scrutiny, it is a longstanding practice in city high schools that many educators say was ramped up under the Bloomberg administration as schools sought to avoid sanctions tied to student credit-earning and graduation rates.

In addition to the task force, staffers at the department’s new school-support centers will review school data for potential improprieties. And at any school where allegations have been made, officials are investigating student transcripts and the school’s procedures for giving credits and enrolling students in courses, Hartfield said in a statement.

“We have zero tolerance for schools that don’t abide by our regulations,” he said.

The moves suggest the department will try to more aggressively seek out instances of fraud, rather than wait for whistleblowers. They follow a spate of high-profile investigations and media reports about grade inflation and test tampering.

In July, the department removed the principal of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn after a yearlong investigation found that students who had failed classes were able to pass by taking credit-recovery courses that consisted of little more than completing work packets — sometimes without any instruction from teachers. One teacher was told to give students credit simply for attending those courses, the investigation found.

In a series of articles this summer, the New York Post documented more instances of credit-recovery classes that appeared to violate city and state regulations. Several stories focused on grade inflation at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, which is now under investigation.

In April, the principal of Teachers College Community School in Harlem filled in questions left blank by third graders on this year’s English exams, according to a city investigation. Shortly after a whistleblower filed a report about the principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, she jumped in front a subway train and later died.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, said the new task force could help the city move beyond whistleblowers as its main tool for catching academic fraud by educators.

“I’m hoping that the task force will soon report its findings and recommendations,” he said, “and institute a 360-degree system of prevention, monitoring, and identification.”

compensation

How will Chicago repair the harm from special-education neglect?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Laurel Henson, at the podium, spoke at a press conference in Chicago on Nov. 12, 2018, about her 2-year struggle to get a school nurse on staff to help her son, who suffers from seizures.

Illinois may be forcing Chicago Public Schools to repair its broken special education program, but the ambitious effort still begs a critical question: What happens to hundreds of Chicago children who were harmed by the district refusing them services that would  help them learn?

Neither the state nor the school district is saying yet, even as advocates for students in special education have pressed for answers.

Those children include an unnamed third-grader trapped by a tactic the district apparently used to avoid offering services required by federal law.

The child can’t read the word cat or dog, health-legal advocate Barbara Cohen said, but his teacher didn’t believe in giving low grades. So the third grader received a B in English. Then, she told the State Board of Education on Friday, when the child’s mother sought an evaluation for special education services, school officials denied the request based on his having a good grade.

Laura Boedeker, the state’s monitor overseeing special-education reforms,  acknowledged that schools vary in understanding the laws and best practices. Her job, she said, “is to have those discussions and explain what good practices look like.”

That’s not likely to satisfy parents and advocates pushing for quicker action that would help families like the third-grader’s. On Friday, they pressed authorities like Boedeker, who previously served as the district’s in-house attorney.

But with a staff of just three, including herself, it’s not clear how fast Boedeker can move. In 4½ months on the job, she’s only visited 10 of the district’s 600-plus schools.

“Do you have enough boots on the ground, enough help to do this work at the rate you need to do it?” asked Illinois State Board of Education member Susie Morrison.

“We could have an army and not have enough boots on the ground,” said Stephanie Jones, the board’s general counsel.  “What we need more than anything is eyes and ears that tell us what is going on so we can take action. Unless we can put an ISBE employee in every school, which is unrealistic, we need parents and teachers and staff members to tell us what is going on.”

Recognizing the lag in responding to parents, the state board is weighing whether to extend the one-year deadline for filing complaints about denied or improper services.

It’s possible, Jones said, that “we can wave this until we have a system of corrective action in place.”

Neither the state nor district have answered questions like: How many students could be eligible? When exactly will the system go into effect?  And what roles should advocates and schools play?

Boedeker said that federal officials have insisted that teams who put together students’ individualized education programs be involved in the remedy, because “they’re the ones on the front lines with these students.” 

But lawyer Matt Cohen said he and other advocates want a process that involves more people than the IEP team.

A child who, for example, went without a one-on-one aide for many months or who didn’t get placed in therapeutic day school when needed “might have had a profound loss,” Cohen said.

How the district will compensate that family is the question.  

“They may need more than just a few hours of tutoring to make up for that, they may need months and months of additional services and a specialized process to help them catch up,” Cohen said.  “We’re encouraging families whose kids were hurt to bring their complaints to the state, and to seek action to get their individual child’s needs met.”

Jones said that board officials and the school district, federal government and special education advocates are discussing school guidelines for identifying students harmed, notifying their families, assessing damages and offering remedies.

About half a year has passed since a state probe found the school district violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services — like aides, therapy, outside placement and busing — to students in what the district calls its Diverse Learners Program.

The state board’s Jones and Boedeker tried to placate critics by preaching patience.

“From the outside looking in it looks really slow,” Jones said, “but I think we’ve accomplished a great deal in the time we have had.”

Patience doesn’t sit well with parents desperately worried about their children.

Laurel Henson, whose son suffers from seizures, said she’s been pushing to get a nurse on staff at Smyser Elementary for two years, but has encountered “delays and excuses.” On Nov. 1 the school finally granted a meeting to discuss an IEP, she said.

“In that time, he’s had a significant increase in seizures at his school causing fatigue, aggression and bed wetting during the night,” she said. Despite her hopes for the monitor, “ nothing has improved for my son and it now feels like neither CPS nor the state are accountable for ensuring students like my son have a free and appropriate education.”

 

ethnic studies

50 years in, why the fight for Mexican-American studies in schools is still in its early stages

PHOTO: Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Sonia Salazar, a college student, joins over 1,000 people to commemorate the historic East LA student walkouts of 1968 earlier this year. Mexican-American Studies courses are gaining traction now in K-12 schools after years of growth in higher education, a panel concluded during a recent civil rights conference in San Antonio.

Thirteen-year-old Alejandra Del Bosque knows not everyone gets to take a class like hers.

In it, she’s learned about Mexican-American students who staged walkouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to protest the lack of resources available to their schools. She’s also learned how her state’s school funding system has still been deemed inadequate in recent court rulings.

“There was so much to learn about my heritage that I didn’t know,” Del Bosque said. “But from what I understand, it’s a unique class that’s not everywhere. For me, as a Mexican-American, it’s exciting.”

Her experience remains relatively rare. Fifty years after televised civil rights hearings galvanized the Chicano movement, academics and activists agree that the push for Mexican-American studies still lacks basic resources. And though interest is increasing, in part thanks to President Trump, growth has been slow — especially in K-12 schools, since college-level programs have traditionally gotten more attention.

“That was a big mistake we made,” Juan Tejeda, a professor at Palo Alto College, said last week. “There should have always been a focus on developing culturally relevant curriculum from pre-K through 12.”

He spoke at an event commemorating the 1968 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearings on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, where he and others took stock of the movement that emerged in the decades since to better engage Latino students. (Of the 58 million Latinos in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are of Mexican descent, and most were born in the U.S.)

That’s long been a challenge for schools, especially as most educators are white. Some research has suggested that when students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, test scores and graduation rates rise. Another study found that taking an ethnic studies course helped reduce dropout rates.

Not many students have access to those courses, though. There’s no solid national data on how many school districts have some form of Mexican-American studies in their schools. California is understood to have taken the lead, while Tejeda estimated that only about 38 of more than 1,000 Texas districts have started a program.

That’s partly due to ongoing political opposition.

Arizona’s ban on teaching Mexican-American studies back in 2010 was a wake-up call for the movement, Tejeda said. (Last year, a federal court ruled that the state’s move was “racist and unconstitutional,” but Tucson hasn’t reinstated its program yet.)

Over the last decade, Mexican-American professors built a network that evolved into a group called Somos MAS. The group began a push for a standard high school elective course in Texas.

After four years of lobbying, the Texas board of education approved the course last year. Battles have also turned toward materials: When the book to be used in schools for Mexican-American studies was released in 2016, it was described by many Chicano scholars as racist for its portrayal of Mexican-Americans as lazy and un-American. That book was later thrown out, as was another the board didn’t like in 2017. Then came a debate over the course’s name, which just ended in September.

Those fights were about more than details – they were about granting the topic legitimacy, and about making it easy for teachers to introduce the material, said Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“There were already some teachers here or there taking upon themselves to incorporate the studies into the schools, but it was sporadic, and accurate materials weren’t always easy to find,” Saldaña said. “Approving a course that can be aligned with state standards is ideal and would allow for the programs to be more streamlined.”

Another key challenge: in many cases, limited student interest. At the college level, Our Lady of The Lake University — the host of the hearings in 1968 and the conference last week — considered nixing its Mexican-American studies program in 2012 because of the small number of participating students. It was later saved.

“That also reminded us that if we don’t fight to keep these programs, they will be lost,” Tejeda said. “But what we needed to do was focus on getting students interested while they are younger.”

Saldaña says student interest has grown more recently thanks to political rhetoric around immigration, specifically from President Donald Trump. Trump has disparaged Mexican immigrants, questioned the impartiality of a Mexican-American judge, and made wanting to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border the center of many political speeches.

“Between what we are seeing with the current administration in office, and the battle here on the ground over the course we have been fighting for, students are getting a real-time lesson,” Saldaña said.

Somos MAS now hosts an annual summit for K-12 educators to come learn about Mexican-American Studies and how to integrate lessons into their classrooms. The University of Texas at San Antonio also offers a summer training institute that has drawn nearly 100 teachers at its most recent gathering.

It’s not nearly enough, the panelists said. “What needs to happen next is a focus on building infrastructure: such as more teacher training opportunities on how to incorporate MAS in their classrooms; a teacher certificate in Mexican-American Studies, and more advanced degrees in ethnic studies so students see a future in this field of work,” Saldaña said.

Students from KIPP Camino Academy. (Photo by Francisco Vara-Orta)

One school that has moved ahead with Mexican-American studies course is KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. After a pilot program two years ago, the class is now an elective for seventh- and eighth-graders.

On Friday, 20 of the KIPP students watched the discussion on the 50-year fight to get Mexican-American studies in their schools with their instructor, JoAnn Trujillo.

“Some of these kids have driven by the university here and never have gotten to step foot on its grounds,” Trujillo said. “So us being here — in part because of the program, and seeing how Mexican-American studies is something special that had to be fought for many years — will plant seeds about going to college and feeling more self-worth.”