June 8, 2011
Statistics students at a Brooklyn high school took an unusually high-profile final exam today: They presented an analysis of the city’s school report cards to an audience that included their principal and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
Their teacher, Eleanor Terry, had invited the Chancellor via email, hoping to put together an official audience for her Advanced Placement statistics students at the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology.
The school earned an A on its most recent progress report. But that didn’t stop students — who wore buttons depicting their statistics class mascot, the “normalcurvasaurus” — from scrutinizing the way their school was graded. They examined technical issues including bias in survey questions, the way students are broken into deciles by their eighth-grade test scores, and how different scores were weighted to come up with their school’s final grade.
The students peppered their presentations with recommendations for Walcott, ranging from offering the student surveys online to factoring a school’s size into its grading.
Walcott spent more than an hour scribbling notes during the presentations. When students described difficult experiences in freshman physics classes and adjusting to high school, which they said could affect the student progress section of the report, Walcott asked, “Should we be doing something different freshman year?”
“The kids were unbelievably impressed that he said he would come. And I can’t say my reaction was any different,” Principal Phil Weinberg said.
Walcott also asked the students for their thoughts about expanding some math classes to be taught over three semesters, rather than two, to reduce what he said was “hopping from topic to topic.”
“I’m not sure if I’m biasing the question,” he joked as some students, like Christian Sanchez, quickly agreed.
“I got by, but there’s a lot more I could have learned,” Sanchez said of his 10th-grade trigonometry class.
Telecommunications’ parent survey response rate was 24 percent below the city average, which the students said might be fixed by using the same tactics used on students: lotteries for rewards, like tickets to baseball games, movies, or SAT-prep classes.
Rifat Kaynas said that the parent survey should also be expanded to cover more of the school environment, since teachers often only see part of the picture.
“I was bullied once, but I don’t go tell the dean, I just go home. Parents can see those bruises and cuts. So how can that be used to improve the quality of safety at the school?” Kaynas asked.
“It’s a good tool, but there are a lot of kinks,” he said.
Asked what they would change to influence the way their school would be graded next year, the students answered nearly unanimously: not cut January Regents exams. The state Board of Regents voted in May to eliminate the January test dates, used mostly in large cities, in order to cut costs.
No January exams will mean fewer students passing, leading to more students falling behind, lower graduation rates, and eventually lower report card grades, the students said.
“When the students say, ‘I have friends who can’t get these credits,’ that’s what the chancellor is here to see, what it feels like to be looked at in this way,” said Terry, a sixth-year teacher and Math for America teaching fellow.
The students pointed out that one flaw in the peer schools index, which calculates how schools compare to similar schools, is that it doesn’t account for enrollment. Telecommunications, with over 1,300 students, is considered a peer school with Civic Leadership Academy in Queens, which has just 323 students.
Walcott asked how the DOE could take school size account without focusing solely on enrollment. The students weren’t sure, but they were emphatic about another suggestion: making the progress report data easier to read and understand.
“If you haven’t taken statistics before, you might struggle,” Eman Toom said.
“Even if you had,” Walcott quipped.