measuring up

Understanding New York City’s latest round of school report cards

New York City’s schools got new, redesigned report cards on Tuesday.

For the second time since the de Blasio administration scrapped the A-F letter grades once assigned to schools, the city released a set of parent-friendly school guides and deeper data dives for most of its 1,800 schools. [Look up your school’s data here.]

This year’s school guides include more data than last year’s did, and line up with Chancellor Fariña’s new school “framework” — with measurements for trust and collaboration appearing alongside metrics of academic success. P.S. 15 on the Lower East Side, for example, exceeded the city’s target for school leadership but is only approaching its target for student achievement.

Those targets are new this year, and reflect city officials’ latest answer to a tricky question: How do you measure and reward a school for its progress, while also giving parents a clear sense of whether students are passing state tests or are ready for college?

The Bloomberg-era letter grades were often criticized for their focus on progress, leaving some high-performing schools with low letter grades and some low-scoring schools with As and confusing parents. Last year’s reports, the first released by the de Blasio administration, nixed the grades. In their place were descriptors based on in-person “quality reviews,” among other metrics.

City officials say the new targets are here to stay, and are meant to be realistic goals for schools to meet each year.

For parents glancing at the results, the reports are also generous: Only four high schools are labeled as not meeting their targets for student achievement, though another 106 fell short and are labeled “approaching target.” Just two high schools are labeled as not meeting their targets for rigorous instruction.

Seven of the 94 schools in the city’s turnaround program met or exceeded their targets in all categories, including student achievement.

The goals also vary widely. The selective Millennium High School needed a 93 percent four-year graduation rate to meet its target (seven points lower than its actual 100 percent graduation rate), while the long-struggling Dewitt Clinton High School would have needed 67 percent (a full 22 points higher than its 45 percent graduation rate).

The variation comes from the fact that each school got its targets based mostly on a group of peer schools with similar demographics, but also based on citywide averages.

“The Snapshots do a good job translating a large amount of school data into language that is meaningful to parents,” said Nicole Mader, the education policy analyst at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. “But it would be very hard to use these Snapshots to compare multiple school options available to their children.”

Next year, the city is ditching peer schools altogether in favor of comparisons between each school’s individual students based on grade level and demographics. Lisa Merrill, a research associate at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools who works with school survey data, said that will provide more sophisticated comparisons.

Those peer comparisons already appear on this year’s reports below prominent statistics, including a school’s pass rate on state tests and its graduation rate. But critics said the city’s attempts to translate the data into understandable graphics — with Boys and Girls High School, which has a low graduation rate, earning two out of four bars for student achievement — are misleading.

“The administration would rather give parents a falsely rosy picture than admit schools are not performing,” StudentsFirstNY’s executive director Jenny Sedlis said.

Others, including Mader, noted that presenting school data always involves trade-offs.

The snapshots, she said, are a fair way to account for challenges each school faces while pushing them to do better. The question is whether parents will dig deep enough to utilize them.

“While I applaud the administration’s desire to move away from one summary grade or statistic for each school,” Mader said, “I worry that parents who are pressed for time or overwhelmed with options are going to ignore most of what this Snapshot is offering them, focusing on one number like test scores instead.”

disintegration

In most U.S. cities, neighborhoods have grown more integrated. Their schools haven’t.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Between 1990 and 2015, Seattle’s neighborhoods saw a notable decline in racial segregation.

It would make sense, then, to think that the city’s public schools had also become more integrated. Not so.

In fact, they were headed in the opposite direction. In 1990, only 3 percent of schools were intensely segregated — that is, at least 90 percent of students were nonwhite — but by 2015, that number had spiked to 17 percent.

That’s not entirely surprising. During that time, a high-profile Supreme Court case made it more difficult for Seattle to integrate its schools by race. But new research looking at America’s 100 largest cities shows that the diverging trends in Seattle — neighborhoods growing more diverse, as their schools grow more segregated — is not an anomaly.

The analysis finds that, between 1990 and 2015, 72 percent of U.S. cities saw their neighborhoods grow less racially segregated, by one measure. Sixty-two percent saw their schools grow more segregated over that same period.

“There is this incredibly striking trend,” said Ryan Coughlan, a professor at Guttman Community College, CUNY, who conducted the research. “It raises all kinds of alarm bells and questions as to what that’s about.”

Most cities did not see schools segregate as much as Seattle did. And 27 cities, like Durham, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee, saw both their schools and neighborhoods grow less segregated in concert over that 25-year period. But overall, the study finds that integrating neighborhoods didn’t predict integrating schools in those same cities.

The analysis has significant limits, particularly when looking at single cities. It uses one of several possible ways to measure segregation: the degree to which the racial breakdown of students in individual schools or neighborhoods mirror the demographics of the rest of the district or city. In most cases, charter schools are not included. That makes the data less useful in places like Detroit, where charters now enroll half the city’s students.

The big-picture trend matters, though. More integrated schools have long been shown to improve academic outcomes for low-income students and students of color. Living in a more integrated neighborhood has also been linked to long-run benefits for younger kids.

“Because of the connections between integration and educational opportunities, the dramatic increase in school segregation alongside the decrease in neighborhood segregation requires the immediate attention of school leaders, policymakers, and the public as a whole,” Coughlan wrote.

What’s behind those trends?

The analysis, published last month in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, can’t say why that’s happening. The end of many legal desegregation orders during that time likely played a role. Coughlan also hypothesizes that the rapid increase in school choice, through charter schools and other means, had something to with it.

“These are 100 different urban areas with very different circumstances,” Coughlan said.

The paper’s starting point is 1990, before the first charter school law passed in the U.S. Since then, school choice has rapidly grown, through charters and other means.

In Seattle, though, charter schools are almost certainly not the cause of its increase in school segregation, since the city has very few.

Another city that saw a major spike in school segregation along with a modest decline in neighborhood segregation is Charlotte. Like Seattle, it’s seen a resegregation of schools in the wake of high-profile court cases.

Charlotte also has a number of charter schools; there and elsewhere in North Carolina, other research has found that charters have likely exacerbated segregation. (Coughlan’s Charlotte data does not include charter schools.) Nationally, research has shown that charters either exacerbate school segregation or have no effect on it.

“The broader literature at this point I think shows that charter schools do not integrate schools,” said Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies segregation.

Other research has shown that the existence of different school options can promote neighborhood integration (also described as gentrification). That could help explain Coughlan’s results, with a family’s ability to opt out of a neighborhood school encouraging their move to a neighborhood they wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

The disconnect between housing and schooling trends has important implications. For one, it means that divided neighborhoods shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do nothing about divided schools, said Tomas Monarrez, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied school boundaries.

“Neighborhood segregation is the result of a long, long history of discriminatory policies both on the part of private agents and the federal government,” he said. “School systems have gotten to ride that and say segregation’s not our fault.”

Instead, he argued, school leaders should be taking affirmative steps to integrate schools, and recognize that they may have to continually adjust their policies. “School attendance boundaries don’t have to replicate neighborhood segregation,” Monarrez said. “You can gerrymander school attendance boundaries to decrease it.”

City-by-city data

You can look up how residential and school segregation changed in your city from 1990 to 2015 below. Keep in mind that a city and its corresponding school district do not always overlap perfectly — the school data for Indianapolis, for example, includes just the Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s central district but one of 11 districts in the city.

Segregation, here, means the degree to which the demographics of students in individual schools mirror the rest of the city’s public school students. This captures whether different groups of students are spread evenly across schools in a city, but it doesn’t say much about cities where virtually all students are students of color. Most segregation occurs between rather than within school districts.

Source: “Divergent Trends in Neighborhood and School Segregation in the Age of School Choice,” Peabody Journal of Education.

counterpoint

Some Asian American groups have backed the SHSAT, but this one says the exam should go

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

In the fight to integrate New York City’s coveted specialized high schools, one source of opposition has stood out.

Asian parents and alumni have waved signs at City Hall, heckled education leaders at town halls, and marched in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the test that serves as the sole entrance criteria for the elite schools.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families is calling for the test to be nixed in favor of an admissions system that weighs multiple factors, releasing a report on Tuesday that attempts to bring nuance to a debate that has often played out in sound bites.

“We believe that current admissions processes to specialized high schools contribute to the problems of segregation and inequity in NYC public schools,” the advocacy organization’s report notes.

Specialized high schools enroll a disproportionate share of Asian students. Many have argued that the mayor’s plan, which aims to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the schools, pits one community of color against others. Only about 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, even though those students comprise about 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The Coalition’s report offers a counter-narrative to the debate, highlighting that many Asian organizations have long called for admissions changes at the specialized high schools and arguing that Asian students would benefit from an overhaul.

But the organization stops short of endorsing de Blasio’s proposal, blasting his administration for failing to include the Asian community in its development or rollout. (One of the coalition’s co-directors is a mayoral appointee to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy.)  

“We remain highly critical of the processes that he and the Department of Education have taken in crafting and releasing those proposals to the public,” the report says.

An education department spokesman said the city looks forward to working with the coalition to eliminate the test, and said the city is presenting its plan to every community school district.

The report comes as parents are considering suing over the city’s diversity efforts and supporters of the test have hired a lobbyist to fight the potential changes.

The coalition’s stance also highlights the steep challenge de Blasio faces as he gears up to lobby state lawmakers to scrap the entrance exam, which is currently required by state law. Though Democrats managed to gain control of the Senate in the latest election, the issue doesn’t have a clear party line — and some of the mayor’s natural allies have expressed doubt, or even backed away from the mayor’s proposal.

Read the full report here