guinea pigs

With field tests approaching, parents are reprising protests

A group of parents and teachers are once again preparing to opt their children out of state tests, this time when their schools will administer “field” exams in over a thousand elementary and middle schools across the city next month.

Field testing allows test makers to gauge the value of future test questions. Pearson, the company that currently makes New York’s state tests, is preparing a slew of new questions that are aligned with new learning standards known as the Common Core. This spring’s field tests focus on science, math, or reading, depending on the grade level. Students in selected schools already took the science test in mid-May, which was for grades 4 and 8. The math and reading tests are scheduled for the first week of June.

The parents and teachers, who are part of the Change the Stakes coalition, are calling on parents to protest the testing, which will be administered on behalf of Pearson Education, the test publisher that famously drew criticism for the “pineapple” test questions on the state’s eighth-grade English exam in April.

“This is just research for the company,” said Tony Kelso, whose third-grader is supposed to take the reading field test at Amistad Dual Language School in Inwood.

Kelso added that he doubted Pearson would get useful information from the tests. “My understanding is that the tests aren’t even reliable. The students know they won’t count so they don’t take them seriously,” he said.

A small number of students opting out would be unlikely to affect the big picture that Pearson is seeking to draw from the field tests, according to Sean Corcoran, a New York University researcher who studies testing. “Since the test is given statewide, inferences about performances will largely be based on how students do relative to all test takers statewide. It would take a lot of students opting out to change this distribution.”

Unlike regular state tests, students will not find out how they’ve performed on the field tests. Instead, Pearson’s field tests are supposed to provide data to improve future tests, according a memo sent to superintendents and principals in March from Ken Slentz, the state’s Deputy Commissioner of P-12. Pearson landed a $32 million contract with the state in 2010 to produce elementary and middle school tests over five years.

But several parents want to know why their schools didn’t inform them about the stand-alone field tests.

“I found out about it through the grapevine,” said Kelso, who isn’t allowing his son to take the test. “I plan on calling every third grade parent to see if they will join me in writing a letter to the principal. I’m against these high stakes tests. It just results in teachers being forced to teach for the test.”

The protest is part of the grassroots organization’s campaign to reduce the culture of high stakes testing, which the organization said “distorts classroom curriculum” and emphasizes “mind-numbing” test preparation.

“I have seen my son go from being excited to being bored by school,” said Diana Zavala, who is involved with the Change the Stakes campaign. “This is all about making money for Pearson. They create the tests and study guides. This is a huge business for them.” Zavala was one of the parents who chose to opt of the state testing for their children this year but her son isn’t required to take the field test.

Other parents are questioning why a stand-alone field test is being administered when Pearson already embedded field questions in the state tests this year.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Jinnie Spiegler, whose daughter is in fourth grade and feels pressured to do well because the state tests influence which middle school she is admitted to. “They’re basically doing free pilot studies.” Her daughter class wasn’t selected to take the field test.

“The schools should inform parents and give us the option to opt out,” she said.

Children who opt out of the state tests are assessed on a portfolio of work instead. Unlike the state tests, there are no consequences for boycotting the field tests, according Matthew Mittenthal, the press secretary for the city’s Department of Education.

But there is no opt-out option for teachers like Lauren Cohen, who teaches the third grade at P.S. 63, a Lower East Side elementary school. Her students will take Pearson’s reading test during one class period.

“It’s hard because I feel like I’m caught between ethics in what I believe and my ethics that I need to be doing my job,” said Cohen.

Many of Cohen’s students receive special education services and struggled to sit through the 90-minute state tests in April, which were longer this year because of the embedded field questions.

“I definitely want to make it a stress-free situation for my kids,” added Cohen. “I’m not going to hide the fact that the field-test doesn’t count toward anything.”

 

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.