policy admissions (updated)

City principals say they won't use test scores to screen students

Distressed by state tests that they say did not reflect the way they want students to learn, several city principals are pledging not to use the scores to help them pick their students.

Selective middle schools consider students’ fourth-grade reading and math scores, and selective high schools look at students’ seventh-grade scores.

But after the first round of state tests tied to new standards known as the Common Core, about a dozen principals have announced — in an open letter to parents, students, educators, and others with an interest in education — that they are abandoning the use of test scores in admission, at least for now.

“We welcome rigor, high standards and accountability, but demand that these three crucial words and concepts not be thrown around loosely; and, even more importantly, we demand that they be implemented in a proper, respectful and effective way,” write the principals, who come from a range of selective schools in three boroughs. “Therefore, we cannot grant these recent tests the value others claim they have until [our] concerns are addressed.”

The principals say they want the state’s tests to be shorter, open to public scrutiny, and more aligned to the Common Core, which emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving over recall and the completion of rote processes.

Mark Federman, principal of East Side Community School, said he helped draft the letter after being “shocked and appalled and just really saddened” that this year’s state tests did not match up to what he expected of the Common Core.

“The power that we have as principals and as schools is we decide how important [test scores] are,” he said. “It would be hypocritical for us to use them in admissions.”

The principals are also registering their criticism in a letter that Federman said would be sent soon to State Education Commissioner John King. Journalist Andrea Gabor first reported about both letters on her blog.

Like most of the principals who signed the letters, Rex Bobbish, principal of the Cinema School, a selective Bronx high school, has never made test scores the exclusive or even prime factor when selecting applicants. But he told GothamSchools that he always considers them, and in the past, he has assumed that very low scores meant that students would not be prepared for high school. Now, he said, he won’t make the same assumption.

“I will weigh students’ grades in core courses much more heavily than the state exams going forward,” he said. “That’s the pledge I made when I signed that letter.”

At schools where test scores have factored more heavily into admissions decisions, making the same pledge is less straightforward, Federman said. Still, he said, principals there could facilitate an important discussion about the role of test scores.

“If there’s a school and parents that are boycotting the test, and yet the school is using tests to let kids in, I think that’s a good conversation for that community to have,” he said.

Among the principals who have signed on to the pledge is Ramon Gonzalez of M.S. 223 in the South Bronx. Days after the state tests finished last month, Gonzalez told a crowd of policy makers — including AFT President Randi Weingarten, who has called for a one-year moratorium on stakes for Common Core exams — that the tests had distressed his teachers and students.

“They didn’t know it would be a test of endurance,” Gonzalez said about his students. “They thought it would be a test about what they knew.”

Bobbish said changing their schools’ admissions criteria represents a small step that principals can take against state tests’ increasing stakes, an issue that several mayoral candidates have pledged to address.

“There’s not really much we can do about it,” said Bobbish, who said he supports the Common Core standards but grew concerned after colleagues told him that the tests did not appear to be fully aligned to the standards. “We can’t control the whole world, but we can send a message by saying we really value a student’s long-term effort and what they do in teachers’ classrooms more than what their tests show.”

This story has been updated with comments from Mark Federman and to reflect the fact that the letter to John King has not yet been sent.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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