Ithaca, N.Y. — This fall, the New Roots Charter School in Ithaca reported that only about half of its recent graduating class managed to graduate in four years.

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One of the measures that New Roots must meet to assure its charter will be renewed is a graduation rate higher than that of the Ithaca City School District. Over 85 percent of ICSD students graduated in four years.

Critics of New Roots pounced on the charter school’s far below-average graduation rate. But it was only one of over a dozen measures that the charter school failed to either match or come close to matching, according to New Roots’ 2013-14 Accountability Plan Progress Report, which was obtained by a Freedom of Information Law request.

In an interview, New Roots Principal and Superintendent Tina Nilsen-Hodges called the graduation rate “unacceptable” and said that the failure to meet the new accountability standards is an historical anomaly created by the unique composition of the 2010 graduation cohort.

She also defended the record of her school, criticized state test scores as an inadequate representation of student learning, and said that New Roots was implementing a slew of changes to improve the results.

New Roots Superintendent Tina Nilsen-Hodges

She acknowledged that the school has a long way to go to meet the accountability measures and said that it must improve its test scores.

(A second story in this series, to be published later, will look more fully at the superintendent’s response to the school’s test scores.)

Accountability plan shows extent of challenges faced by New Roots

The accountability plan progress report shows the following:

1 — English Regents

Goal: 65 percent of students will meet college and career ready standard under the English Regents exam.

Result: Only 49 percent of students passed with the adequate score of 75 percent.

2 — Math Regents

Goal: 65 percent of students will meet college and career ready standard for the Math Regents exam.

Result: 26 percent of students passed with the necessary score of 80 or higher. “The school fell short of this measure by nearly 40 percentage points,” the report says.

3 — History Regents

Goal: Charter schools are supposed to have higher scores than the local high school, in this case ICSD, in the Regents U.S. History Exam.

Result: ICSD’s 2009 cohort had a 92% pass rate. That year New Roots had 77% pass rate. The 2010 cohort for New Roots showed the History Regents score increase to 83% — still 9% points below that of ICSD’s most recent results. ICSD data for the 2010 cohort was not listed in the report.

4 — Percentage passing at least three Regents exams

Goal: 75 percent of students are supposed to get at least a 65 on at least three NYS Regents exams by the end of their second year in high school.

Result: 46 percent of students passed at least three Regents exams by their second year in high school.

5 — Percentage graduating in five years

Goal: At least 95 percent of students will graduate in five years.

Result: 64% of students graduated in at least five years.

6 — APs vs. local school district

Goal: A higher percentage of charter school students will graduate with a Regents diploma with “Advanced Designation” than the school district.

Result: No data is listed for ICSD for 2010 cohort. But New Roots only had 3 percent graduate with an advanced designation from the 2010 cohort, compared to 40% at ICSD the year before.

7 — Summary of the High School English Language Arts goals

Result: “The school did not meet the new high school English Language Arts goals.”

8 — Summary of High School Math goals

Result: “The school did not achieve any of the new high school mathematics accountability measures.”

9 — Summary of the High School Graduation goal

Result: “The school did not achieve the high school graduation goals.”

10 — SAT test scores

Goal: Each year, the average 12th grade SAT score will exceed the state average in reading and mathematics.

Result: The school beat the state SAT averages, but only nine of 32 New Roots students took the test.

11 — PSAT scores

Goal: Each year, the average performance of students in the 10th grade will exceed the state average on the PSAT test in Critical Reading and Mathematics.

Result: 20 of 30 10th grade students were tested. The average New Roots math score was about two points lower than the state average; the average New Roots English score was seven points lower. (Though state averages are based on performances by students in 11th grade.)

12 — College matriculation

Goal: Each year, 75 percent of graduating students will matriculate in a college or university in the year after graduation.

Result: Only 65 percent of graduating seniors matriculated to college or intend to do so in the spring after their graduation.

You can read the full accountability plan progress report here:

Accountability Plan Progress Report New Roots Charter School 2013-14 Final 10-31-14 by Jeffrey Stein

The school did meet some of its required metrics, including: for Science Regents test scores; for having 75 percent of graduating students pass a course for college credit; and for Global History Regents.

Superintendent’s response

Superintendent Tina Nilsen-Hodges lists several mitigating factors that she says help explain the results:

1 — New standards

Nilsen-Hodges said the state had implemented a slew of new, higher standards that makes the New Roots scores appear worse than they actually are.

She said New Roots had done much better under prior state standards for success and that the new expectations were suddenly imposed on charter schools. “That’s a big factor,” she says of the new standards.

Nilsen-Hodges said she supports high standards to push students to do better, but that this context must be kept in mind when looking at New Roots’ results this year.

2 — New Roots’ make-up

Nilsen-Hodges said New Roots must get its test scores even as its students have, broadly speaking, “twice the poverty, twice the special education and half the funding” — numbers disputed by others.

The superintendent said that it’s also unfair to compare New Roots to the Ithaca City School District — one of the best in the state — when its students come from across the region.

New Roots also makes this point in its accountability report.

“We must work to quickly close achievement gaps developed throughout elementary and middle school with students who express little confidence of graduating from high school or attending college,” the report states.

“The cumulative and combined impact of students at risk of academic failure entering New Roots after spending one or more years in high school elsewhere is evident in our evaluation of our 2010 cohort data.”

3 — Test scores aren’t everything

This is the issue that will be explored most fully in our follow-up story, but for now we’ll note that Nilsen-Hodges does not think it’s fair to measure a school’s success primarily by these state test standards.

4 — Things will improve with new changes

Both Nilsen-Hodges and the accountability report detail that the school is responding the test scores with several changes.

Here’s what Nilsen-Hodges said were the school’s principal changes as a result of last year’s test scores:

— It hired a new special education classroom aide for students with learning disabilities.

— It hired a new math instructor.

— It increased co-teaching, and now have two teachers in most courses.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.