Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Myth of Failing Schools: The Case of Houghton Academy #69– An Injustice or Just Plain Dumb?

September 21, 2014

For the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring the myth of our “failing schools”.  I want to be clear; I am not offering an argument opposing the fact that we have serious problems in our schools.  But the issues contributing to poor student achievement are complex and should not be defined solely through the lens of standardized tests.   Yet, detractors are quick to cite these test statistics as a rationale to justify the labeling of our schools and the children in them as “failing”.

Each year, the New York State Education Department compels children in grades 3 thru 8 to take standardized tests that measure English Language Arts (ELA) and Math proficiency.   High school students take regents exams in these subjects, in addition to other subjects.   As such these tests are used as the basis to assess and categorize our schools as:  good standing, focus or priority (with priority being the schools with the lowest tests results).  Again, it’s important to point out that all students, with few exceptions, take these standardized tests.  That includes students with disabilities and students who have limited English proficiency. 

The tests were changed radically in 2012-13 to conform to the new Common Core Learning Standards.  The result was a precipitous drop in the percentage of students, across the State, who ranked at the proficient or exceeds proficient levels.   In fact, only about 30% of all students scored at these levels. The 2013-2014 tests produced negligible growth, particularly in the ELA exam results.  None the less, Buffalo’s International School #45 and Houghton Academy, School 69 both demonstrated “historical growth”, based on the standardized measures and other growth measures over a period of time. This warranted both schools being moved to the Schools in Good Standing List.  But, and here’s the irony or the insanity of the system, the District could not move Houghton Academy to a School in Good Standing without moving a current Good Standing School from that list to the Focus List! 

When Board members received this information, we were dumbfounded.  Why?  The explanation lies in the State’s submission of a Waiver request to the Federal government.  Now, I admit that I don’t understand the details of this Waiver.  I even posed the question to Commissioner John King last week during his visit to Buffalo.  He gave me an explanation but it’s really not any clearer.  I will have a conversation with a State Education Department member this week so I have a better understanding.  The bottom line, however, is that the Buffalo School District is deprived of having another school moved to the School in Good Standing List.  Not because the school, its students, its teachers and administrators have not earned this designation but because there are bureaucratic guidelines in place which will not permit the move, unless we penalize a current school in good standing by placing it on the Focus School list.  It doesn’t make sense!

So, here are my questions to the Commissioner and his staff, “How do we incentivize individual schools to improve student achievement when they may not get moved to the Good Standing School list because of a bureaucratic impediment?”  “How can a District like Buffalo be properly recognized for improvement?”  “With this system, how will we ever move the District forward, school by school, to one that has many schools in good standing?”   “What do we tell Houghton Academy about why their achievement did not get the proper recognition they deserve?”  If you have other questions, please email me and let me know, so I can pose those too?  Send mail to banevergold@buffaloschools.org

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