The city’s top-performing high school slipped in the latest round of report cards, not because kids didn’t do well at the school—but because of how they fared in college.
Sound School, a marine-themed magnet school in City Point, fell from a top-ranked Tier I to a middle-ranked Tier II school Monday, as New Haven school officials released the latest results of an annual effort to grade all district schools into three “tiers” based on student performance.
Click here to read a presentation outlining the new tiers. And scroll to the bottom of the story for a list.
Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries announced the new grades at Monday’s school board meeting at 54 Meadow St.
The ratings determine which schools get more autonomy, which get more scrutiny from the school district Central Office, and which, if any, low-performing Tier III schools will be overhauled as “turnaround” schools with new work rules.
They also aim to send a message about which schools need to do more work to help the school district close the achievement gap between New Haven kids and their statewide peers on standardized tests.
The evening held several surprises.
• Sound School, the city’s top-performing school, got marked down not for test scores or graduation rates, but for how many graduates are sticking with college—a new emphasis in the grading system this year.
• Davis Street School, a top-performing elementary school, also fell because it failed to sustain enough growth in test scores, even though the test scores remain high.
• In other highlights, Brennan/Rogers, the city’s first in-house turnaround school, lifted up from Tier III to Tier II—and set its sights on how to sustain that growth after multimillion-dollar grants run out. Harries said the city has not yet determined whether it will tap any of the Tier III schools to become “turnarounds,” where principals get the right to replace the staff and change work rules. The district has until a March 15 deadline to inform teachers if it intends to do so.
• Fair Haven School, which drew plaudits in past years for dramatic gains in student performance, slipped to a Tier III rank because test scores fell last year. Fair Haven’s new label drew disappointed staff and a parent advocate to the school board defend the school and request more resources to deal with a burgeoning and challenging population of kids, including English-language learners.
Fair Haven’s staff gave voice to what teachers union President Dave Cicarella said is a widely held objection to the grading system.
“We do not support tiering of schools,” Cicarella said after the meeting. “The reason we don’t support it is that, no matter how we message it,” when a school gets labeled Tier III, parents and the public end up feeling: “That’s a bad school. Don’t send your kid there.”
“That’s not the message we should be sending,” Cicarella said. “That’s why we just can’t support tiering.”
Perhaps the most surprising news Monday concerned how the district chose to evaluate Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center. For the past two years, the 340-student school has been the only of the city’s 13 high schools to rank in Tier I. It tops the district in two main factors schools get graded on: the number of kids “on trajectory” to graduate (80 percent) and the school survey results. (The “trajectory” number shows how many kids are on track to graduate, based on credit accumulation, Connecticut Academic Performance Test scores, and actual graduates—click here for an explanation.) Last week, the district announced Sound School has the highest graduation rate in the city; it just rose by 4 percent to 92.9 percent.
Sound School is held to higher standards than other schools because of the type of students it deals with: The grading system takes into account how prepared incoming freshmen are based on their 8th grade standardized test scores, as well as how challenging the population is, based on the number of poor, special education, English-language learner, and transient kids. Sound School, a magnet school that draws from the city and suburbs, has a less challenging population than other schools by both of those measures.
Sound ranks in the middle of the pack, however, when it comes to college. Slightly less than half of Sound School graduates in the Class of 2011 enrolled in a third semester of college, the district’s measure of college persistence, according to Harries’ presentation. That’s just even with the district average.
Given the type of kids Sound is dealing with, Harries said, more kids from Sound School should be succeeding in college. That was the main factor that led the district to rate Sound School as Tier II, he said. The distinction won’t mean Sound will lose the autonomy it enjoyed as a Tier I school, Harries said. It’s more of a message, he said, that “they need to focus on the long-term success of their students.”
“Sound School remains high-performing in terms of the students who are there,” Harries said. “We think Sound can rise to the challenge” of preparing kids for success in college.
The new focus on college proved to be fodder for debate. Board member Alex Johnston pointed out a “disconnect” in the data, where a high number of kids are identified as succeeding in high school, yet they struggle to get through college. He mentioned the growing discussion around character traits such as “grit” and persistence, which emerging research says are better predictors of success than test scores and grades. The research, compiled in a recent book by Paul Tough, suggests schools need to teach kids these skills and give students an opportunity for structured failure. Johnston posited that maybe kids are too protected from failure while in high school.
“We may be building a huge scaffolding around students, and when it’s not there,” when kids are on their own in college, they don’t have the character skills they need to succeed, he offered.
The tiering raised another question: Does the city expect every New Haven Public School graduate to complete college?
Harries was asked about students who plan to launch a vocational career that does not include college. He said for the district’s purposes, “college” includes a range of higher education, including associate’s and technical degrees—any degree for which a student can get a federal Pell grant. “We do think the long-term success depends on expertise after high school,” Harries said.
By the same logic, the school district chose to promote Hill Regional Career High School to a Tier I school. That school had a higher-than-average rate of college persistence—nearly two-thirds of the Class of 2011 enrolled in a third semester of college—while less than half of incoming students arrived academically prepared for high school, according to the data.
All other high schools remained in their same tiers from the prior year: Scroll to the bottom of this article for a list. (Note: Kids who transfer into a school after Oct. 1 are not counted for tiering purposes.)
Fair Haven Cries Foul
Grades for the city’s 29 elementary schools highlighted a challenge: Schools have to keep showing growth on test scores to keep their standing.
Davis Street School ranked in the top five K-8 schools based on absolute performance on standardized tests. Students have come close to closing the achievement gap with their statewide peers, falling just shy of state’s average 83 percent proficiency rate on the Connecticut Mastery Test. But students slipped three points in overall proficiency compared to the prior year, causing the school to fall in rank from a Tier I to Tier II school.
Elementary schools are graded on two main factors: absolute performance on tests, and growth on tests.
After a year of double-digit gains on tests in the second year of a turnaround experiment to overhaul a failing school, Brennan/Rogers jumped up from Tier III to Tier II.
“We’ve put a lot of focus on moving every kid,” explained Principal Karen Lott (pictured with 2-year-old granddaughter Aaliyah). That meant moving students who were performing at “below basic” up to “basic.” The way New Haven calculates growth, that movement counts: Growth is measured not simply by the number of kids scoring “proficient” on the tests, but by the average amount each kid in a given school improves compared to similar peers.
Lott said her school is now focusing on continuing that growth—and finding a way to make it sustainable after two multimillion federal grants run out. While Wexler/Grant got no extra resources to fund its turnaround, Brennan/Rogers benefited from an extra million dollars a year from a combination of a School Improvement Grant and a magnet school grant. Brennan/Rogers used the money to double up teachers in classrooms, boost professional development, and buy lots of new technology. Both grants are set to expire after this spring, though there will be some magnet carryover money for the following year.
Test scores at Fair Haven School are quite close to those at Brennan/Rogers when you average out the past three years. While Brennan/Rogers has been on the upswing, however, Fair Haven slipped back on the tests last year. Fair Haven went from 48.0 percent proficient in 2010 to 58.4 percent in 2011 to 49.5 percent last year. That last year of test scores sent the school from a Tier II to a Tier III school, which sent a wave of disappointment through the building Monday.
“We were surprised” at the new label, said Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings, who attended at Monday’s meeting with four staff members to show support for the school. “The negative connotation of a Tier III school threw us for a loop.”
“It was a tough day for us,” said Gethings (pictured). “We’re not a Tier III school. We’re a thriving school.”
Starting when Kim Johnsky took over Fair Haven School in 2007, the school has been credited with making a remarkable comeback from a difficult, unruly environment to a safe, productive one, and raising test scores to boot. The transformation coincided with the school changing over from a middle school to a K-8. Gethings, Johnsky’s former assistant, took over as principal in 2011.
Harries on Monday addressed Fair Haven staff’s concerns from the podium.
Just because Fair Haven is rated Tier III, he said, “that doesn’t mean the principal or any of the staff are Tier III staff.” However, he said, the school is “not where we want to be” in terms of student performance.
Carlos Torre, president of the school board, asked if Fair Haven will get extra resources along with the new Tier III distinction.
“That’s part of our challenge,” Harries replied.
Mary Rosario, a substitute teacher and parent advocate at Fair Haven School whose four children attended the school, pressed Harries.
“So, do they get more resources?” she asked.
Harries didn’t commit.
“Let me just say to you, we’re going to help pick you back up,” schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo later offered.
“We didn’t fall back,” protested Rosario from the audience.
“I just want to make sure that you get the added resources,” Rosario said, looking back at Gethings.
Fair Haven School has the highest enrollment of any school in the district. It has swelled from 690 kids last year to 735 this year. The school includes a lot of English-language learners, including 102 in a “newcomer center” for new immigrants and refugees. Gethings said the school needs more support with English as a Second Language.
In his presentation before the board, Harries agreed “we need to think hard about how we support all of our Tier III schools.”
He defended the tiering labels: “We think it’s helped encourage” schools to improve, he said. “It focuses the attention where it needs to be—on the urgency for change of the district as a whole.”
Harries later said that “in the context of diminishing resources and increased costs, I cannot unilaterally commit to more resources.” He said a committee of teachers and administrators has been working together for the past year to address concerns of inequity in the school system. While the committee hasn’t doled out extra money, it has recommended a couple of small policy changes that help schools with challenging student populations: For example, replacing part-time social workers and school psychologists with one single, full-time person who can help with kids social and emotional needs.
The school district this year added nuance to its grading system by distinguishing between schools within a single tier. Tier II is split between “Tier II Achieving,” schools that have higher absolute test scores; and “Tier II Growing,” schools showing more growth. Tier III “improving” highlights schools that still rank in the bottom category, but are showing growth. Read the new grades below.
East Rock (from Tier II)
Engineering & Science (from Tier II)
Mauro-Sheridan (from Tier II)
Tier II Achieving
Davis Street (from Tier I)
John C. Daniels
Tier II Growing
Brennan-Rogers* (from Tier III)
L.W. Beecher (from Tier III)
Tier III Improving
Augusta Lewis Troup
Fair Haven (from Tier II)
John S. Martinez
King Robinson (from Tier II)
Lincoln Bassett (from Tier II)
Hill Regional Career (from Tier II)
Sound School (from Tier I)
Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School
New Haven Academy
High School in the Community
Dixwell New Light
Polly T. McCabe