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New York City Schools Receives Prestigious Broad Prize Going Strictly Multiple Choice to S

New York City Schools Receives Prestigious Broad Prize

Some might consider making marked reforms to a school district of 1,450 schools and over a million students an unachievable task, but the Broad Foundation believes New York City is doing just that.

New York City has received the Broad Prize, a $500,000 award from the Broad Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by Eli Broad dedicated to improvements in education, science and the arts. The money is put in escrow for the city's high school seniors to apply for college scholarships. "At least 50 or more of our graduating seniors are going to get a scholarship," said Kerri Lyon, a spokesperson for the New York City schools. "Students will receive $10,000 if they are going to a four-year school and $2,500 if they attend a two-year college."

Bridgeport (Conn.) Public Schools, Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District, Miami-Dade (Fla.) County Public Schools, and the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, were finalists, winning $125,000 each. Previous winners of the prize, which was first instituted in 2002, include Boston Public Schools, Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools, Garden Grove (Calif.) Unified School District, and the Houston (Texas) Independent School District. "There were a number of very strong contenders this year. Every single one of the finalists showed improvements in reading and math at all different grade levels," said Erica Lepping, a spokesperson for the Broad Foundation.

Since 2002, the New York City school system has undergone a systemic change in the way it does business, according to the Broad Foundation. A change toward a districtwide curriculum emphasizing balanced literacy and the use of the Everyday New York City Schools Receives Prestigious Broad Prize Mathematics program, coupled with increased allowances on the part of individual schools to tailor off erings within those guidelines, has enabled teachers to differentiate instruction in most classrooms.

The city has also crafted an intervention model that enhances teacher engagement with a student in an effort to increase performance and prevent the need for special education services.

New York City demonstrated greater overall performance in math and reading than other districts with students of similar income levels throughout the state. The academic performances of key subgroups-low-income students, blacks and Hispanics-were also at a higher level than those of other communities in the state. The achievement gap between minority students and white students also decreased dramatically, as much as 14 percentage points in some subject areas, according to the Broad Foundation.

"I congratulate our students, who show every day that they can meet high expectations when given the chance. We still have a lot of work to do, but the Broad Prize is an important sign that we are on the right track," said Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

There is a single quality the Broad Foundation is looking to uncover from school Districts. "We are looking to make sure that there is a purposeful reform that is driving the result," says Lepping. "Every single one of the finalists was showing improvements in reading and math at all different grade levels." -Steven Scarpa

Going Strictly Multiple Choice to Speed Grading

In an effort to address long-standing complaints over how slowly test results are processed, Maryland school system officials recently decided to eliminate written-response questions from the state's high school exit exams. Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy state superintendent, announced that beginning in May 2009 the state will phase out "brief constructed responses" and "extended constructed responses"-questions requiring a written answer-from its four tests covering algebra, biology, English and government.

Eliminating those questions on the tests, which students are required to take after finishing the course in that subject, will allow the state to process the results up to six weeks faster than before, says Assistant State Superintendent Leslie A. Wilson, who has written two books on school improvement and assessment. Written-response questions require more time to grade than multiple-choice questions because they have to be evaluated by humans instead of computers.

Wilson says the time spent processing the test results was "putting great stress on students and Maryland schools" and that some jurisdictions were not finding out how their students had done on the exit exams until after the next school year had begun, making it difficult to provide assistance or summer school classes to students needing special help to pass the tests.

Stephen Bedford, the chief school performance officer in Montgomery County, said in his testimony at a public hearing that the lengthy turnaround time in scoring is "too long, making it difficult to enroll students in appropriate courses or plan for interventions" for those who don't pass the exams.

In response to questions about the usefulness of the new multiple-choiceonly tests in evaluating students' mastery of the subjects, Wilson says, "We've seen pretty complex skill sets assessed with just multiple-choice.

Wilson says some of the writtenresponse items on the exit exams have actually taken a "negative and formulaic approach" to assessing writing. "As long as you know the content you'll be fine," she adds.

High Variation in Graduation Rates

Graduation rates are a fundamental indicator of whether the nation's schools are doing what they are intended to do: enroll, engage and educate youth to be productive members of society, says a new publication from the Alliance for Excellent Education, "Understanding High School Graduation Rates." Unfortunately, there are gaping differences between the graduation rates calculated by the states, the U.S. Department of Education, and independent researchers. The new report illustrates those discrepancies, examines why the problem is important and explains how federal policies have contributed to the confusion.

The report says there are five different graduation rate calculations that states use throughout the country, and many of them are "staggeringly inaccurate." The average difference between states and independent sources is about 13 percent, but the gap ranges from a low of 4 percent all the way up to 30 percent, the publication notes.

"Misleading graduation rate calculations, inadequate systems to track students throughout their education, and lack of accountability by the school are undermining eff orts to understand and increase the nation's graduation rate," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The report states that the federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to use a calculation defined as "the percentage of students who graduate from secondary school with a regular diploma in the standard number of years." States, however, citing a lack of data and capacity, use a range of calculations that "do not provide accurate measurement intended by the law and significantly underestimate the number of students dropping out each year," according to the report.

Many experts say that graduation rate estimates issued by independent researchers are more accurate than those from official sources.

In Texas, for example, there is an 18 percent difference between the rate calculated by an independent source and the rate calculated by the state.

In addition to the obvious need for having all states use the same graduation rate calculations to improve their accuracy, the report's authors also stress the need for a state data system that "tracks individual student data from the time students enter the educational system until they leave it."

The full report, with state-specific rate information, is available at all4ed. org/publication_material.

Backpacks Brimming with ...Religious Fliers?

At Madison Metropolitan (Wis.) School District, the second-largest district in Wisconsin, students in six elementary schools were recently sent home with Sunday school fliers from the local Grace Lutheran Church, according to district spokesperson Ken Syke.

Known colloquially as "backpack mail" and officially as board of education policy 7041, the district's procedure for distribution of non-school-related materials sets the following criteria: the program must serve public K12 students, it must not violate the law, it must not occur during regular school hours, it must contain a non-endorsement statement, and the program must be "considered appropriate" by the superintendent.

"Our district attorneys feel that you cannot discriminate based on viewpoint,"

says Superintendent Art Rainwater. He adds that the community task force assembled by the district plays a very important role in providing information to students about programs and activities in the local and surrounding community.

Parents may choose to opt out of the non-school materials distribution list; doing so bars them from receiving outside materials of any kind.

"Don't Neglect the 3 R's," the flier reads. "Religion, Relationships and Rejoicing!" It urges families to "plant the seeds of faith in Jesus in your child at our Sunday school."

The Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics, called on the district to ban distribution of the fliers and others not related to school activities. FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor acknowledges the district's supposed "content neutral policy"-FFRF even successfully publicized its own free-thinking-based events through the district in years past as a response to the various religious groups consistently advertised through the schools-but says the district must draw the line at programs having nothing to do with school activities, especially since the staff labor of distributing the materials is, after all, taxpayer-subsidized.

"We were trying to reach the community," said the Rev. Th eodore Gullixson, the pastor at the church. "It wasn't our intention to bring religion into the schools."

New Report Illuminates the Superintendency

A new study released by the American Association of Superintendents' Center for System Leadership, "The State of the American School Superintendency," says that today's superintendents are very happy in their job, and 90 percent of those surveyed report finding their work serving students to be extremely rewarding.

The report, based on a May 2006 survey of more than 1,300 superintendents nationwide, is one of many studies on the state of the superintendency AASA has conducted every decade since 1923. Th is mid-decade study was conducted now because of "the rapid changes in the education field" and effects resulting from state accountability programs and NCLB legislation, says AASA Executive Director Paul D. Houston.

The report finds that 60 percent of superintendents consider the superintendency a "very stressful" position, as many face the pressure of meeting increasing expectations with dwindling resources. Houston says that in spite of the fact that the stress levels are the highest of any AASA study, superintendents see themselves as "committed emissaries" to their district-as "people choosing the career for very positive, altruistic reasons."

Houston says the job has "become much more mechanical" since NCLB was enacted, and the pressure to raise test scores is often inimical to their desire to improve student achievement. He adds that the most critical issue facing superintendents today is that there is a changed expectation of how schools must perform.

The full report can be ordered from the AASA Web site ( Its authors hope it will be read, considered and utilized by national and state policy makers.

NAEP Results Are In, but Interpretations Vary

The nation's fourth- and eighth-graders continue to improve in reading and math, albeit modestly, and in some cases more steadily than others, according to recently released scores from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card. Black and Hispanic students in particular are making gains, although improvements for minority students did not always result in the narrowing of achievement gaps with white students.

Furthermore, math scores for fourthand eighth-graders were higher than they've ever been in the history of the Nation's Report Card, and reading scores for fourth-graders were also the highest they've ever been for the assessment.

The average reading score for eighthgraders was up 1 point since 2005-the last year the NAEP reading and math assessments were administered-but the report says the trend of increasing reading scores for eighth-graders has not been consistent over all the assessment years.

Some experts are using the high scores as fodder for justifying the federal No Child Left Behind law, while others are pointing to them as evidence that student achievement might be improving, but not nearly enough.

President Bush called the results "outstanding," and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings declared in a statement that the scores "prove NCLB is working."

"The nation's focus on early childhood and early elementary reading instruction is clearly paying off, with fourth-grade students showing steady gains," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. "But for most students, the intensive instruction does not continue, and by the time they reach eighth grade, too many have lost the benefit of that early investment, as confirmed by today's announcement."

Democratic lawmakers currently overseeing efforts to revise the law are similarly cautious in discussing the NAEP scores. In a statement, George Miller (DCalif.) aid the results were encouraging but that more work must be done to close the achievement gaps.

David W. Gordon, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, and superintendent of the Sacramento County, Calif., Office of Education, said at an event outlining the results that the improvements in reading and math were not a result of any single academic program or curricular approach in schools. The gains, he says, stem from states' and districts' consistent commitment to academic improvement strategies over time.

The NAEP tests, which are separate from the exams used to rate schools under NCLB, were given from January through March to more than 702,000 students. The full reports are available at

Kozol Leaves Food Behind to Protest NCLB

Education author and activist Jonathan Kozol began a partial fast early this past summer as what he describes as a "personal act of protest at the vicious damage being done to inner-city children by the federal education law No Child Left Behind."

In a recent column in Th e Huffington Post Kozol said the law's justification was the "presumptuous and ignorant determination by the White House that our urban schools are, for the most part, staffed by mediocre drones who will suddenly become terrific teachers if we place a sword of terror just above their heads and threaten them with penalties."

About 30 pounds lighter than he was before he began, Kozol says he has been subsisting on mostly liquid foods, only breaking the "partial fast" for other forms of nourishment when he experiences stomach pains.

He feels that his fast is "a tiny price to pay compared to what so many of our children and teachers have to go through every single day."