Colorado

‘No justifiable basis’ for Chavez test accommodations

EdCChavezSign92309An audit of testing practices at Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo finds three successive years of “extremely high” rates of special accommodations for test-takers – but no evidence of answer tampering or test coaching.

Auditors also said there was no evidence that the extra time, typically another 30 minutes per test-taker, resulted in improved scores for CCA students on the Colorado Student Assessment Program.

Lawrence Hernandez, CCA’s controversial founder, said he feels “vindication.”

“What the audit shows is that the kids earned the results they received,” said Hernandez, who was ousted from the school in October and is now suing the school’s governing board.

Still, “There is no justifiable basis for these high rates of accommodation levels,” state Education Commissioner Dwight Jones said in a news release Monday. “The state is compelled to require Cesar Chavez Academy to establish new policies and implement new procedures to ensure these high rates of accommodations are not repeated.”

As Education News Colorado first reported in July, 56 percent of Cesar Chavez Academy students in grades 3 through 8 received extra time on their 2008 reading exams. In comparison, 6.9 percent of all Colorado students in grades 3 through 8 received extra time on their 2008 reading tests.

The Caveon Test Security audit points to  similar discrepancies between the school and state practices, noting that 77.5 percent of Cesar Chavez third-graders were provided extra time on state writing tests in 2007 compared to just 6.5 percent of students statewide.

Colorado Department of Education officials commissioned the audit at the request in June of former Pueblo City Schools Superintendent John Covington. The state paid Utah-based Caveon $25,000 and released the firm’s findings on Monday.

Among the highlights:

  • No evidence of answer sheet tampering through erasures, test coaching through similar test analysis or unusual gains from prior years.
  • Normal rates of extra-time accommodations in 2006 at CCA but “extreme rates of extra-time accommodations” in 2007 and 2008 in all grades and in grades 3 and 7  in 2009.
  • Inconsistent use of extra-time accommodations for the same students from 2008 to 2009; for example, “an unexpectedly large number of students” who received extra time in 2008 did not receive the same accommodation in 2009 – whether the students stayed at CCA or moved to another school.
  • No evidence of testing irregularities at CCA’s sister school in Pueblo, Dolores Huerta Preparatory High; Denver’s Cesar Chavez Academy, which has its own governing board, was not part of the audit.

Pueblo City Schools officials released a statement saying the Caveon audit “confirms allegations that inappropriate CSAP test administration has taken place at Cesar Chavez Academy for the past three years.”

“This is unfortunate for so many families who had such high aspirations for the school as it was originally envisioned,” Pueblo City’s school board president, Stephanie Garcia, said in the release.

“It certainly is sad that those in authority at CCA lost sight of the vision by compromising the school’s credibility and misleading children and their families into a false assessment of a student’s academic performance.”

CDE’s Jones has requested the CCA develop and submit to Pueblo City Schools a written plan to remedy training and implementation of testing procedures by Feb. 1. He said the plan must include new CCA policies and assurances that school test procedures are transparent to the school district and the state.

Pueblo district officials say they’re considering “a range of actions that could include, but not limited to, proctoring of future CSAP tests at CCA, sanctions against CCA administration and working with the CDE to invalidate certain CCA test results as a result of misadministration.

“We do not refute the audit findings but in fact embrace them as an opportunity to move forward with our educational programs,” Dennis Feuerstein, governing board president of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network, which includes CCA, said in a statement.

“Faculty, staff, and students are not surprised that there is no evidence of tampering, teaching to, copying of, or ‘cheating’ during the CSAP,” he said. “Our students and teachers have worked extremely hard and their high achievement has been confirmed.”

Feuerstein said the schools’ network acknowledges “that a significant number of students” received extra time but said, “The internal policies and procedures regarding these extra time accommodations were practices mandated by prior administration that are no longer associated with our schools.”

It was unclear if Feuerstein was referring to Hernandez, the CEO of the Cesar Chavez Schools’ Network through October. Feuerstein, among those being sued by Hernandez over his ouster, did not return a call requesting clarification.

CCA, a K-8 charter school, has won national attention for achieving high test scores with a high-minority, high-poverty student enrollment. But the school’s accomplishments have long been questioned by some in the Pueblo school district and in the Pueblo community.

The CDE also is planning a financial audit of Cesar Chavez Academy and expects “soon” to announce the firm selected for that audit, according to its release.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.