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.

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.

summer mix tape

Ten stories you might have missed over the summer (and should read now as a new school year begins)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Stand for Children received funding to support parent education.

There is no such thing as time off from covering education. While school doors were shuttered, plenty happened this summer on the Colorado education beat. Here, we’ve compiled stories that we hope prove useful as you ease back into your fall routines.

We’ve got your immunization data right here … 

For the second year, Chalkbeat tracked down immunization data for more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s largest school districts. Our database revealed that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records. Read our news story about the findings, check out these six charts that dig into the numbers and search for school-level data here.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg reflects on his sabbatical (a break not everyone appreciated)

In June, Denver Public Schools’ longtime schools chief returned from a six-month unpaid sabbatical in South America with his family. “It made us appreciate the extraordinary resources we have here,” he said in an interview about his experience.

A milestone for Colorado charter schools on diversity, but not so much on integration

For the first time, Colorado’s charter schools educated a larger proportion of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools, a state report showed. We took a closer look and found that does not mean charter schools are more integrated.

Race, policing and education during a summer on edge

This summer sadly provided no shortage of violence and heartache over issues that sometimes feel like they’re tearing America apart at the seams. We sought to bring some local perspective (and wisdom) to the debate by talking to an ambitious Manual High School student who took up a bullhorn at Denver street protests and to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

A middle school’s last-ditch effort to save itself 

An Adams County middle school running out of time to improve has placed its bet on more challenging, more personal teaching — and zero test preparation. Watch Chalkbeat later this week for a report on whether these efforts paid off in the form of improved state test scores. (Hopefully … the data are set to be made public Thursday).

Guess which Colorado school district had a high proportion of teachers designated to lose tenure …

Compared with other large Colorado school districts, Denver Public Schools had a higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure under a sweeping educator effectiveness law passed six years ago. We surveyed big districts about one of the consequences of Senate Bill 191.

Too darn hot to teach and learn 

As part of its big bond request of voters this fall, Denver Public Schools wants to try to cool off some of its hottest schools. We took a look at where the mercury soars the highest and found that in 12 of the 18 hottest buildings — some of which house more than one school — the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch exceeds the district average.

But the University Club has a lovely lunch menu (and squash courts, too)…  

What if the State Board of Education held a not-so-public meeting with the education commissioner at a private club downtown to prioritize goals, but didn’t get much of anything accomplished? That happened.

What we know — and don’t know — about Colorado remediation rates

Colorado’s college remediation rates inched upward after years of steady decline, a disheartening development. On top of that, we’re not getting the full picture, either, because of incomplete school-level numbers and non-existent district-level data.

Diet Coke: Coming soon to a high school vending machine near you? 

Despite opposition from advocacy groups, Colorado appears headed toward lifting a seven-year ban on diet soda in high schools. The rule change would clear the way for diet soda to be sold in high school vending machines and school stores, though districts could decide not to stock the drinks. We covered the issue before and after the State Board of Education’s initial vote.