First Person

Understanding School Accountability Committees

Principal Ty Muma estimates that 40 percent of parents at Frontier Valley Elementary School in Douglas County don’t know what the “SAC” is.

conferenceAlthough all public schools in Colorado are required by law to have a “School Accountability Committee,” the entity might be aptly described as the studious stepsister of the eye-catching PTA.

School accountability committees — which go by a variety of names and acronyms at different schools, including “Site Accountability Committees,” “School Advisory Councils” or “Building Accountability Committees” — are made up of parents, school employees and community members. And while the councils are little-known and may not be particularly sexy, they can be one of the best ways for parents to weigh in on how a school spends its money, what programs it offers and the strategies it uses to improve.

So, what kind of parent should join School Accountability Committees?

“It’s the parent who wants to do more than fundraise,” said Kelly Corbett, chief academic officer for Brighton 27J school district. “It’s the parent who wants to get involved in change…the big picture thinkers.”

Diving into data

Myanna Schimpf, who has three children at Adams 14 schools as well as a preschooler, said that while some parents prefer stuffing folders or decorating bulletin boards, parents serving on accountability committees will be brainstorming, synthesizing information and offering feedback to administrators.

“I always tell parents these are things you should know because as a tax-payer, this is where your money is going,” said Schimpf, who is co-president of the District Accountability Advisory Committee in Adams 14 and a member of the school-level committees at Rose Hill Elementary and Kearney Middle. “The more you know, the better your school runs.”

In Muma’s experience as a principal, SAC members “want to look at data. They want to look at numbers.”

Those numbers can pertain to anything from class sizes to TCAP scores to the school budget. Although SACs typically function as advisory committees with the principal getting the final say on an issue, Muma said the panel is “a great sounding board.”

Often, SACs designate one member to attend meetings of the District Accountability Committee (DAC), which serves a similar advisory and accountability function districtwide. SACs are required to meet at least quarterly, but many hold monthly meetings.

Making an impact

All districts run their SACs a little differently. For example, in Brighton 27J, the work of the SAC is folded into each school’s parent-teacher organization, said Corbett, who coordinates the District Accountability Committee.

In Adams 14, where SACs are known as BACs or “Building Accountability Committees,” every school holds its monthly meetings at Adams City High School, just prior to the District Accountability Advisory Committee meeting. Dinner, childcare and translators are all provided. Since adopting a central location and adding family-friendly amenities about a year ago, DAAC meetings now attract around 150 participants up from 10-15, said Schimpf.

While SAC members often find themselves discussing test scores and school improvement plans, meeting talk touches school issues large and small. One topic that came up at the Rose Hill Elementary BAC a couple years ago was the problem of quick turn-over among new teachers. The group worked with the principal to come up with a way to ensure new teachers felt welcomed and valued during their first year of the job. Money was set aside so that new teachers had an extra “stipend” to spend on supplies or items for their classrooms.

Asked if the plan worked, Schimpf said, “I believe it did because we still have a lot of those teachers here.”

At Frontier Valley, Muma said conversations begun at SAC prompted improvements in both the school’s website and communication with parents through what are called “Thursday Folders”.

In Brighton 27J, Corbett said parent members have contributed by pushing for clarity and simplicity in how documents are presented, such as the long, intimidating “Unified Improvement Plan.”

Enhancing participation

Despite the more direct involvement in school operations that SAC membership offers, consistently attracting parent members to SAC or DAC meetings is a challenge at many schools. Corbett said one reason is that school accountability doesn’t always resonate with them.

“It’s a constant struggle for us as an organization,” he said.

For that reason, he invites every parent who calls with a complaint to come to DAC meetings. One mother, who he described as “madder than a hornet’s nest” when she contacted him, is now one of the committee’s strongest members.

At Frontier Valley, there are usually six parent participants at SAC meetings. Muma said hot-button issues increased traffic at the meetings at two points in the last five years. In one case, a convicted sex offender moved into the school neighborhood and parents were concerned about student safety. In another, there were concerns about proposed changes to the school’s four-track schedule.

“If your community is really happy, you don’t get a big turn-out at your SAC,” he said.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.