final exam

As Walcott watches, AP stats students scrutinize school metrics

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott listens to a student presentation on their school's progress report.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott listens to a student presentation on their school's progress report.

Statistics students at a Brooklyn high school took an unusually high-profile final exam today: They presented an analysis of the city’s school report cards to an audience that included their principal and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Their teacher, Eleanor Terry, had invited the Chancellor via email, hoping to put together an official audience for her Advanced Placement statistics students at the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology.

The school earned an A on its most recent progress report. But that didn’t stop students — who wore buttons depicting their statistics class mascot, the “normalcurvasaurus” — from scrutinizing the way their school was graded. They examined technical issues including bias in survey questions, the way students are broken into deciles by their eighth-grade test scores, and how different scores were weighted to come up with their school’s final grade.

The students peppered their presentations with recommendations for Walcott, ranging from offering the student surveys online to factoring a school’s size into its grading.

Walcott spent more than an hour scribbling notes during the presentations. When students described difficult experiences in freshman physics classes and adjusting to high school, which they said could affect the student progress section of the report, Walcott asked, “Should we be doing something different freshman year?”

“The kids were unbelievably impressed that he said he would come. And I can’t say my reaction was any different,” Principal Phil Weinberg said.

Walcott also asked the students for their thoughts about expanding some math classes to be taught over three semesters, rather than two, to reduce what he said was “hopping from topic to topic.”

“I’m not sure if I’m biasing the question,” he joked as some students, like Christian Sanchez, quickly agreed.

“I got by, but there’s a lot more I could have learned,” Sanchez said of his 10th-grade trigonometry class.

Telecommunications’ parent survey response rate was 24 percent below the city average, which the students said might be fixed by using the same tactics used on students: lotteries for rewards, like tickets to baseball games, movies, or SAT-prep classes.

Rifat Kaynas said that the parent survey should also be expanded to cover more of the school environment, since teachers often only see part of the picture.

“I was bullied once, but I don’t go tell the dean, I just go home. Parents can see those bruises and cuts. So how can that be used to improve the quality of safety at the school?” Kaynas asked.

“It’s a good tool, but there are a lot of kinks,” he said.

Asked what they would change to influence the way their school would be graded next year, the students answered nearly unanimously: not cut January Regents exams. The state Board of Regents voted in May to eliminate the January test dates, used mostly in large cities, in order to cut costs.

No January exams will mean fewer students passing, leading to more students falling behind, lower graduation rates, and eventually lower report card grades, the students said.

“When the students say, ‘I have friends who can’t get these credits,’ that’s what the chancellor is here to see, what it feels like to be looked at in this way,” said Terry, a sixth-year teacher and Math for America teaching fellow.

The students pointed out that one flaw in the peer schools index, which calculates how schools compare to similar schools, is that it doesn’t account for enrollment. Telecommunications, with over 1,300 students, is considered a peer school with Civic Leadership Academy in Queens, which has just 323 students.

Walcott asked how the DOE could take school size account without focusing solely on enrollment. The students weren’t sure, but they were emphatic about another suggestion: making the progress report data easier to read and understand.

“If you haven’t taken statistics before, you might struggle,” Eman Toom said.

“Even if you had,” Walcott quipped.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.