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.

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.