all before 9 a.m.

Tisch fans rumors of mayoral bid, calls test errors "inexcusable"

Teachers from New Rochelle wore custom shirts designed to mock a state test question to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch's breakfast talk today.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch fanned interest in a possible mayoral bid by refusing to deny her interest in the position at a breakfast hosted by Crain’s New York today.

Crain’s NY editor Erik Engquist’s first question for Tisch was about the persistent rumors, first aired last fall, that she might be considering running to succeed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Everything I have to say on that subject I think I’ve already said,” Tisch told Engquist.

What Tisch has said in the past hasn’t been entirely consistent. When GothamSchools broke the news about the mayoral murmurings in October, Tisch told us, “I am absolutely, positively not going to run.” But appearing on Inside City Hall the next month, she was less definitive.

“I have an obligation that I am fulfilling right now and I am very happy in my work,” she said. “And I know there is a really crowded field out there of very eager people and I am sure they will emerge and one of them will serve the city very well.”

Host Errol Louis pointed out that Tisch hadn’t actually said she wasn’t considering running. “I’ll take that as a ‘I’m thinking about it,'” he said. She answered, “That’s what you said.”

A mayoral bid appears unlikely — but is by no means impossible — with the campaign in official kickoff mode and six Democrats angling for the nomination. But allowing the rumors to persist could work to Tisch’s advantage as she works to advance the Regents’ agenda even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo works to advance his own similar but not identical agenda.

For example, the Board of Regents added passing the DREAM Act, legislation that would give children brought to the country illegally by their parents access to financial aid for state universities, to its legislative agenda this year. Tisch today urged audience members to press lawmakers to pass the bill — but so far Cuomo has stayed mum on the topic.

Tisch was more forthcoming today when offering advice for the city’s next mayor, saying, “I would say to anyone who runs for mayor that the education system is something that they’d better know inside out — first of all because it is the heart of economic development for this city, second of all because a huge part of the city budget goes towards it, and third of all because the public is paying attention to education and its outcomes as never before in our history. Study up, guys.”

Tisch was also forthcoming when discussing problems with this year’s state tests, which she called “inexcusable.” The criticism started over a seemingly nonsensical and ultimately spiked story on the seventh-grade reading exam — referenced on the t-shirts of some teachers who attended today’s breakfast — and have picked up steam in the weeks since the tests ended. The latest mistakes to be revealed are more than 20 translation errors on foreign language versions of the exams that made some questions unanswerable.

“The psychometricians have assured us that the reliability and validity of the exams … is not contaminated by these errors,” she said. “What does drive my anxiety is [test-maker Pearson’s] ability to deliver on the contract. The mistakes that have been revealed are really disturbing. I don’t think children should sit in an exam and be confused about the exam. I think testing needs to be as straightforward as possible.”

Tisch said she has warned Pearson officials to consider how this year’s exam snafus have eroded the general public’s confidence in the tests at a critical time.

“I would suggest to Pearson that they take this very seriously, because next year we are moving to the Common Core standards and those tests are going to be harder still,” she said. “What happens here as a result of these mistakes is that it makes the public at large question the efficacy of the state testing system.”

Changes to the tests that are on the way should restore some of that confidence, Tisch said, and she suggested that Pearson speed up the test scoring to counter objections to the state’s testing program.

“The purpose of these tests is not to play gotcha with school districts. The purpose of these tests is to inform instruction,” she said. “If we can’t get the results back to districts in a time frame in which they can actually use these measures to inform instruction, then you’re just testing for the sake of testing, or for some federal accountability system.”

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.