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.”

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.