could have been

After the tests, a sigh of relief and debate over boycotting them

Posters created by P.S. 261 students suggest what they might have learned if they hadn't spent recent weeks on test prep.

Teachers and administrators who attended a panel discussion about this year’s state tests at a Brooklyn elementary school last week all agreed that the exams induced stress, boredom, and even violence among city students.

But they were divided about whether a boycott of the tests could change the situation.

The panel was sponsored by P.S. 261 Unite, a coalition of activist parents and teachers at the Boerum Hill elementary school. This morning, the group organized a rally at the school to highlight what students “could have been” learning had they not spent weeks preparing for and then taking state reading and math exams.

Students and teachers said they could have been working on projects about animals and Africa, doing creative writing, or taking field trips — but instead, they learned how to search reading passages for correct answers and fill in bubble sheets. One student, a fifth-grader named Leah, wrote, “I have been learning nothing,” before affixing her poster to a wall showcasing dozens of student and teacher contributions. (A video of students reading from the posters is below.)

“When testing comes around you have to put real learning aside,” Principal Zipporiah Mills said at last week’s panel. “The test even overshadows good teachers and a great curriculum.”

The solution, according to a parent on the panel who kept her third-grade son out of this year’s tests, is to steer clear of the exams entirely. Diana Zavala, who is active in the Change the Stakes group, said she hadn’t encouraged other parents at her school to skip the tests out of respect for her principal, but that a large-scale boycott could effectively pressure the city and state legislators to curb the growing emphasis on test scores, which are used to judge students, schools, principals, and, soon, teachers.

Mills said that course of action sounded smart to her. “I don’t know what the consequences would be,” she said. “If no one takes the test, there’s no grade,” she added, referring to the accountability scores that the city and state hand out based on test scores.

Parents in the audience asked for advice about how to boycott and reassurance that their schools would not be punished. But as moderator Peg Tyre, a journalist who has written about testing, tried to wrap up the event, another audience member jumped to her feet. Sharon Fiden, principal of Kensington’s P.S. 230, said she wanted to offer a dose of reality.

“There is a significant impact,” she said, because federal accountability rules require that 95 percent of students take the tests and schools that fall short can be penalized, including by being designated a School In Need of Improvement. “We are checked … and if you become SINI it’s even less time learning and more time preparing for tests,” Fiden added.

“It can’t be for the faint of heart. It has to be all or none,” Mills said in response, adding that if only 20 percent of families opt out, “it defeats the purpose.”

A small but spirited group of boycotters emerged this year as criticism mounted about both the quality of the state’s tests and the importance placed on them. Both Mills and Fiden said after that panel that no families had opted out of the tests at their schools.

Panel members offered other options for parents concerned about the role of standardized testing. Zavala called on parents to demand to see the content of the exams, which the state and test-makers keep confidential. And Sam Coleman, a third-grade teacher in a different Brooklyn elementary school who is active in the Grassroots Education Movement, encouraged attendees to use the tests to pressure the city for changes in the way it manages schools.

Teachers in the audience said they had seen typically well mannered students dissolve into misbehavior and sadness during the testing period. “We’ve never had discipline problems to this level,” said Dana Levy, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 261.

“No matter what positive reinforcement I have given, I have children who break down,” said Katharine Pacilio, a special education teacher at Isaac Newtown Middle School in Manhattan. She said one student said he would rather attend school, which he enjoys, for a month in the summer than undergo more testing days.

With the tests over, Pacilio said, she will bring back project-based learning into her classroom. Students will spend the spring preparing speeches for a recreated Athenian Assembly and using math, finance, and art skills to design the dream home of a “celebrity.”

Interdisciplinary projects that encourage creative thinking are the typical fare at P.S. 261, where second-graders each year operate a postal service for the school and students come dressed as their favorite storybook characters on Halloween.

“It’s just harder and harder to do these things,” said Mills after the panel. “I do worry what our test scores will look like because of it.”

In the video below, students read aloud from the “I could have been learning …” posters created at this morning’s P.S. 261 Unite rally.

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.