How Honest Is New York State’s Public Education Plan?

The New York State Department of Education is in the final throes of tweaking its plan for complying with America’s new school education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In this brave new world of bloated state control and anorexic federal oversight, parents are increasingly dependent on their state’s commitment to honest and clear presentations of each school’s progress. While there are commendable aspects to NYS’s ESSA plan, it fails both the adequacy and transparency tests.

First, the good parts. States are required to choose one indicator other than academic achievement to evaluate schools and NYS chose chronic absenteeism, which refers to how many kids missed 15 or more days in a year. That’s a good choice because researchers have found that, for example, New York City schools with the lowest chronic absenteeism rates had twice as many students achieve proficiency benchmarks on English and math tests, as well as more positive climates. Course content standards remain high, despite some minor changes to the Common Core, and the state affirms appropriate emphases on college and career readiness. The state will continue to intervene in low-performing schools. White suburban opt-out fever aside, New York will abide by ESSA’s requirement of 95% student participation in state tests; after all, how else to create a snapshot of student progress?

But now comes the bad part.

The federal education law says states have to set long-term goals for students. They’ve got to look at how all kids are doing at the school overall, but also how specific groups of students are doing—like students with disabilities, those from low-income families, non-native English speakers, and every major racial and ethnic minority.

In New York’s draft plan, which is due to the feds in September, the state lays out the current situation for every important thing they want to measure (e.g., how many Hispanic kids graduate each year), and what the five-year goal is to improve things. Each year, each school will be assigned a grade on a scale of 1 to 4 to show that school’s progress.

Sounds straight-forward enough, right? Parents examining a school’s performance report — which, the State tells us, will emulate the far clearer school profiles issued by the New York City Department of Education — will be able to gauge the best placement for their child.

Or not.

Let’s look at those high school graduation rates (on page 25 for those of you following along). Currently 91.2 percent of white students graduate from high school in four years. The long-term goal for this group is 92 percent. Thus, the state has set a goal of increasing white student graduation rates of less than one percent in five years.

Currently, 71.1 percent of Black students graduate high school in four years. The long-term goal for this group is 75.9 percent. The state has set a slightly higher goal for Black students, an increase in five years of 4.8 percent.

The goal for white student high school graduate rate increases is too low, just over one-tenth of one percent per year. And the goal for Black students? Barely a dent in our historically dismal achievement gap. Would a Black family want to send their child to a school where one out of four students don’t graduate from high school?

The second part of the problem with this aspect of this ESSA plan is that the state proposed a ratings of all schools on a scale from 1-4 but will conceal the low expectations that have dogged students of color. Here’s how it works.. Let’s say a school with primarily Black students raised its graduation rate by 1 percent next year. This may compare favorably with other schools, although a graduation rate of 72 percent is hardly something to celebrate. Yet that school may very well receive a rating of 3 or 4 because NYS will compare students from the same group.

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY, explains:

It is extremely dangerous. If the main information parents have is a dashboard with all these ratings, if they see a 4, they should be confident 4 means a high level of performance. But it doesn’t. It just means better performance than schools with the same subgroups of students.

Thus, NYS’s ESSA plan not only sets unambitious goals for traditionally-disenfranchised students but obfuscates school performance for their parents. We not only have a barely-ameliorated achievement gap but an honesty gap as well.

Ursulina Ramirez, NYC Department of Education The Chief Operating Officer for the NYC Department of Education, told the New York Times yesterday that this scheme is merely “differentiated accountability.” But it’s more than that: it’s bureaucratic jargon designed to render opaque an uninterrupted tradition of soft bigotry and low expectations.

New York state’s parents, schoolchildren, and teachers deserve an ESSA plan that replaces complacency with urgency and honesty.

What do you think?

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