By the numbers

Sinking test scores won’t help Detroit Public Schools as closure threat looms

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

When the Detroit Public Schools officially became a new school district this summer, it left behind years of accumulated debt.

It may also want to leave behind its test scores.

The results from the 2016 M-STEP, released Tuesday, offer little good news for Michigan’s largest school district.

The percentage of students in grades 3-8 who tested proficient in math dropped from 7.2 percent in 2015 to 6 percent this year. Statewide, math scores barely changed — around 37 percent of students were proficient last year and this year.

It was a similar story in reading, where Detroit Public Schools saw scores drop in every grade except fifth and eighth, where scores were essentially flat. While 13.3 percent of its students in grades 3-8 tested proficient in 2015, that number dropped to 12 percent this year.

Across the state, reading scores saw a smaller decline, with 47.8 percent of students scoring proficient in 2015 and 47.3 percent scoring proficient this year.

The district also struggled at the high school level. Just 14.6 percent of DPS 11th graders earned a proficient score on the math section of SAT compared with 36.9 percent statewide. It was the first year that the SAT was used to assess Michigan 11th graders so the score can’t be compared to prior years but the district saw 11th grade scores drop from 15.6 percent to 12.2 percent on the M-STEP’s social studies section. Scores on the science section were flat.

(See how your school or district performed on the M-STEP or the SAT here).

The bad news comes as low-performing schools across the state face a heightened threat of closure.

The state School Reform Office has said it plans to shutter schools that score in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s annual top-to-bottom ranking for three years in a row using 2014, 2015, and 2016 rankings.

The data released Tuesday still need to be crunched by state officials, who plan to release the top-to-bottom list for 2016 later this year.

How the test scores should be used is the subject of dispute between two state agencies.

The agency that released the scores Tuesday — the Michigan Department of Education — says this data is for “information only.” Last year, the department told schools they would not be held accountable for scores on the first years of the new M-STEP, which is a more rigorous exam that replaced the old MEAP test. It was administered for the first time in 2015.

While discussing the scores Tuesday, a state education department official did not mention that the results could be used to close schools.

“Remember, all students come to school equipped differently in terms of readiness to learn, ability to learn on any given day, and so tests are only one part of our assessment of how a school is performing and what a school is doing to meet the needs of that student,” Deputy Superintendent Venessa Keesler said.

“All of the schools in our state, our nation, need to be in a state of continual improvement to get better. I believe they are. But it’s not a linear process, for sure.”

But the School Reform Office says otherwise. That office is no longer a part of the Department of Education and is no longer overseen by the state school board. Gov. Rick Snyder took over the department last year in an effort to ramp up pressure on low-performing schools.

It’s the Reform Office that plans to close down schools with multiple years of low test scores. Schools that were in the bottom 5 percent on the 2014 top-to-bottom list and are on the 2015 and 2016 lists could get letters instructing them to close their doors next June.

(The 2015 rankings have not yet been released. The School Reform Office plans to release a list of schools whose scores landed them a place at the bottom of the 2015 ranking as soon as this week.)

Detroit Public Schools may plan to argue that the fact that it is now a new district, officially called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, means it shouldn’t be held accountable for the old district’s scores.

The 15 Detroit schools in the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district, may also have a legal argument they could use to stay open because of their unusual position.

But the EAA can point to some improvement on this year’s exams. In reading, the percent of students who were proficient in grades 3-8 went from 5.3 percent last year to 6.9 percent this year.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.