Success Academy is a charter school network in New York City with over 40 schools and approximately 20,000 students. Since it was first formed in 2006, it has been known for having outstanding standardized test scores for grades 3 through 8.
If you ask them how they get such high test scores, they will tell you that it is a combination of their high expectations for students, high expectations for parents, and unified curriculum. But from the first hand anecdotes I have heard over the years including the full length book ‘How The Other Half Learns’ by Robert Pondiscio, there is some shady business lurking behind those shiny test scores. Pondiscio, who is a big ‘school choice’ advocate actually, explains how the lottery to get into Success Academy is not really random because after families are offered spots at Success Academy they are given so many hoops to jump through that half of them don’t even enroll in the school. This leads to a much more compliant group of families and students than the average random lottery school would have.
I’ve learned through a lot of first hand stories that one of the biggest factors in the ‘success’ of Success Academy is the way they weaponize the school’s ability to force students to repeat grades or to voluntarily leave the school to avoid having to repeat a grade. When they have a student who they think is not fitting into their system enough, even if that student is on grade level and passing the state test, they sometimes arbitrarily tell the family at the end of the school year that if the student returns to Success Academy the next year they will have either repeat the grade they just completed or they can transfer to a different school and then they won’t have to repeat the grade.
So one way that holding a student back can improve the school’s test scores is that the weaker students leave the school ‘voluntarily.’ But maybe the family will decide that they want to keep their child at Success Academy and then the student will be more likely to do well on the state test when they have just repeated the year in that grade. But there is another way that Success Academy wields the power to arbitrarily make a student repeat a grade. Each year there are many students who leave the school for all kinds of reasons. While most schools give students on a waiting list a chance to be ‘backfilled’ and transfer from another school, it is known that Success Academy only allows backfilling in grades 1 through 4. So students from the waiting list are offered a slot at the school, but sometimes Success Academy will tell these families who just got a position off the waitlist that because Success Academy is so rigorous, the student will have to repeat the grade they just completed at their other school. They say this to the families whose children, Success Academy thinks, will struggle at the school. So these families who are told this will either take the deal and have their children repeat the grade or they will choose to go to a different school. Either way, Success Academy improves their test scores this way either by denying the student a chance to go to Success or by having them retake the same grade where they will likely do better on the state test the second time around than they would if they were in their proper grade.
I have heard about families having to grapple with this choice after getting into the school as a ‘backfill’ student, but I had no idea how common of a thing this was. So I did a freedom of information request to the NYC Department Of Education. Much to my surprise, the data was just emailed to me today and what it reveals is shocking, even by Success Academy abuse of families standards.
In case this is something that a reader may want to do one day, here is exactly what I sent for the request:
I am studying backfill patterns at the Success Academy Charter School Network. I’ve heard, anecdotally, that many students who are admitted to the network as backfill students (they enter after kindergarten) are mandated to repeat the grade they just completed at the school they attended. I want to study if the percent of backfill students made to repeat a grade for different ethnic groups is the same.
To study this, I would like to have the following data:
For the 2019-2020 (pre-pandemic) school year I would like a spreadsheet that has one row for each student who was admitted as a backfill student. There would be three columns:
Grade student just completed, grade student was in at Success Academy the next year, and race of student (white, black, latino, asian, other).
So it might look something like this:
2,3,latino (this would be a student who just completed 2nd grade and was put into 3rd grade at Success Academy)
3,3,white (this would be a student who completed 3rd grade and was reassigned to 3rd grade at Success Academy)
The first thing that struck me about the data was that there were about 1,400 backfill students in the 2019-2020 school year for grades 1 through 4. I’ve heard Success Academy say that they only have 10% attrition each year but if these backfill students are meant to replace the students in grades 1 to 4 who have left the school, it should be much fewer since 1,400 students is more than 10% of the students who were just in grades K through 3 at Success Academy.
The second thing I noticed that is very mysterious is that 20 of the students who were admitted to the school through the backfill process were past fourth grade. There were six 5th graders, nine 6th graders, one 7th grader, three 9th graders, and one 11th grader. I don’t know the circumstances of these students but I don’t think that they are siblings since there would be a lot more than 20 if Success Academy took older siblings who were past 4th grade. This is something that should be investigated for sure.
But the main purpose of my data request was to find out: 1) What percent of backfill students have to repeat the grade they just completed at another school? and 2) Is this percent different for different ethnicities?
Here’s what I learned:
For the 1,396 students who just completed grade 1 through 4 in another school and were offered backfill spots at Success Academy, exactly 426 had to repeat the grade they just completed or, in some cases, repeat the last two grades they completed (there were 20 students who had to repeat two grades). This is about 31% of the backfill students in those grades.
By grade these numbers are:
For first grade: 123 out of 443 = 28%.
For second grade: 114 out of 427 = 27%
For third grade: 157 out of 467 = 34%
For fourth grade: 32 out of 59 = 54%
For me, these numbers are staggering. I don’t think that they should be permitted to arbitrarily force a student to repeat a grade they just passed at another school. I suppose there could be some rare times where this would benefit the student, but not 31% of the time.
The next question I analyzed was whether or not there was a difference between these percentages broken down by different ethnic groups. So I calculated these numbers again for grades 1 through 4 and compared in one category the White and Asian students and in another category, the Black students.
For first grade:
White and Asian: 3 out of 52 = 6%
Black: 67 out of 234 = 29%
So for students who have just completed first grade, the Black students were five times more likely to be forced to repeat first grade than the White and Asian students.
The other grades were less disparate.
For second grade:
White and Asian: 9 out of 58 = 16%
Black: 62 out of 218 = 28%
So for students who have just completed second grade, the Black students were about twice as likely to be forced to repeat second grade.
For third grade:
White and Asian: 12 out of 52 = 23%
Black: 82 out of 238 = 34%
There were not very many fourth graders, only 7 White and Asian and 24 Black students so the sample size is small for comparison but for completeness.
For fourth grade:
White and Asian: 3 out of 7 = 43%
Black: 9 out of 24 = 38%
Putting the four grades together, 27 out of 169 = 16% White and Asian students had to repeat the grade they just completed while 220 out 714 = 31% Black students had to repeat the grade they just completed. So a Black student is twice as likely to be forced to repeat a grade during the backfill process as a White or Asian student.
I have to admit that even I was a bit shocked by these numbers. I’m curious what other people think about this. There might be more to read into this data, I will write a follow up post if I think of any other way to crunch the numbers.