self-defense

In leaked memo, Pearson stands behind "Pineapple" test items

Even when it seemed that everyone had something to say about “The Hare and the Pineapple,” the seemingly nonsensical story that appeared on New York’s eighth-grade reading exam, the company that created the test remained silent.

Now, a leaked memo makes it clear that state officials sought an explanation from Pearson of why the story appeared on some exams — and that Pearson offered a vigorous defense of its test-construction choices.

“The Hare and the Pineapple” and associated items had been field tested in New York State, yielded appropriate statistics for inclusion, and it was aligned to the appropriate NYS Standard,” a Pearson vice president wrote to Kenneth Slentz, the state’s interim testing czar. The story was meant to test students’ ability to interpret characters’ traits and behavior and to “elicit supporting detail,” according to the memo, which Time Magazine published today.

The memo was obtained by Andrew Rotherham, head of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, who said it was given to him by a state government employee. A State Education Department official confirmed the authenticity of the memo, which was signed by John Twing, a Pearson vice president who serves as the company’s “chief measurement officer.”

The memo, which is written in dense test jargon, describes a chain of psychometric decisions that resulted in the “The Hare and the Pineapple” winding up on the test.

The state contracted with Pearson to include “norm-referenced” questions, tested elsewhere, to help illuminate how well students did compared to each other. But the state turned down one set of questions that Pearson typically uses for that purpose because the questions were not in line with New York’s standards. So Pearson cobbled together custom norm-referenced questions and others that it had used elsewhere — including the Pineapple story, which had been used in six states and three large districts since 2004.

Some New York students saw the questions last year as part of field testing of questions for this year’s exam. Students in New York performed identically to students elsewhere, Twing notes.

Twing also defends the questions that earned the most ridicule: the one that asked students to identify why the animals ate the pineapple and the one that asked for the moral to the absurdist fable. He writes:

Finally, the owl declares that “Pineapples don’t have sleeves,” which is a factually accurate statement. This statement is also presented as the moral of the story, allowing a careful reader to infer that the owl is the wisest animal.

To Rotherham — who discloses in his weekly Time column that he has consulted for Pearson in the past — the moral of the saga is that adults should seek to understand state tests thoroughly before lampooning them.

But he also says that test-makers should pull back on maintaining tight controls over who sees exam content. The state tossed the passage amid media scrutiny, saying that having the questions in public view meant they would not be valid when students who missed the regular test took make-up exams.

“Making some test materials public would drive up costs because they couldn’t reuse that material, but it could strike a better balance between helping people understand how tests work and maintaining the integrity of assessments,” Rotherham writes.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.