After review, City Schools overturns scoring error that left English for Speakers of Other Languages students out of selective high schools

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Three students with the group SOMOS testify at a June 12 school board meeting.

Twenty-four eighth graders in Baltimore City’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program have been offered spots at selective high schools this coming year after a June internal review by City Schools of a scoring error, Baltimore Fishbowl has learned after filing a public information request with City Schools.

In January, City College High School student activist group SOMOS identified the error in the composite scoring system–a mix of grades and standardized test scores that determine high school placement–that deflated some ESOL students’ numbers. These students were told they’d been exempted from taking the English section of the seventh grade PARCC test, but instead received zeros, pulling down their composite scores–and for at least 24 of them, undermining their shot at gaining entrance to a competitive school.

“We’re excited for the well deserved opportunities these 24 students will finally be able to obtain,” students from SOMOS wrote in an email to Baltimore Fishbowl.

The review paves the way for more changes to the high school choice process. A report dated June 29 and obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl recommends the creation of two work groups, specifically to address the problems facing ESOL students and reflect on this year’s process. District officials also say they are working with statisticians from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to model changes to the composite score system, and will involve SOMOS in the process.

All 260 eighth grade ESOL students were reviewed for “missing data,” a reference to the seventh grade test scores, the report says. District officials would not say how many students had “missing data,” but confirmed that the same process would be followed for next year’s applicants, whereby eighth grade test scores are substituted for the missing seventh grade scores.

One of the 24 students who initially did not receive spots, Samreen Sheraz, had been rejected from City College High School despite being valedictorian of her middle school class, as I reported for WYPR on June 13. Later that month, her mother Sadia Sheraz told me, they got a call from City Schools saying Samreen and her brother, Samarkhawaja, had both been offered spots at City.

School district officials would not specify what schools the other 22 students were accepted to, citing privacy concerns.

Aside from City and Poly, widely considered Baltimore’s best public high schools, there are five other “entrance criteria” schools, including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Western, Edmondson-Westside and two vocational-technical high schools, Carver and Mergenthaler (also known as Mervo). All “entrance criteria” schools have a minimum composite score for acceptance. For Carver, Mergenthaler, and Edmondson-Westside, the minimum is 135 points lower than for the other schools.

“It’s important to note that by repeatedly referring to ‘entrance criteria schools’ the district is lumping together a number of schools that vary greatly in quality,” wrote Zach Taylor, an ESOL teacher at Commodore John Rogers Middle School, in an email to Baltimore Fishbowl.

“Without a doubt, ESOL students welcome more opportunities at schools like Mervo, Carver, Dunbar and Western,” Taylor wrote, “but these schools have quite different educational environments, opportunities, and outcomes than City or Poly. I am concerned that talented, high performing English learners are still having limited access to City and Poly.”

SOMOS says they plan to keep advocating for broader changes to the school choice application process, which they argue has excluded ESOL students who make rapid progress by relying on their earlier test scores.

“We will continue to push the district and work hard to ensure that all ESOL students have access to these same opportunities,” they wrote.

ESOL students make up 6.6 percent of the student population, a number that has doubled since 2011, according to City Schools statistics. At top schools like City and Poly, however, only 0.3 percent of students are in the ESOL program, which amounts to four at each school. Most are clustered in two high schools: Patterson High in Highlandtown and Digital Harbor in Federal Hill.

“I am heartened by the districts’ willingness to take a comprehensive approach to reexamining the entrance criteria process,” Taylor wrote, “and I hope they follow through with an extensive reevaluation.”

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