guinea pigs

Brandishing pineapples, parents and students target Pearson

Parents and children rally against the field testing.
Weeks of awareness-raising by groups alarmed by an extra round of state tests this year culminated in a mass protest against the test-maker’s Midtown headquarters today.

The parents and children who attended the rally came from some of the 61 elementary and middle schools where anti-testing activists said families were boycotting “field tests” from Pearson, which began on Tuesday.

Over 400 parents and children protested Pearson’s field tests, which are intended to help design future tests.The company has a $32 million state contract to produce tests.

Parents at the protest — many from the Upper West Side, Brownstone Brooklyn, and Lower Manhattan — said they are fed up with the number of tests that their children have to take. Parent organizations such as Change the Stakes, Time Out From Testing, and Parent Voices New York helped build support against the field tests.

“We organized classroom by classroom, school by school,” said Michael Ravitch, a parent from P.S. 321 in Brooklyn. “Many of these parents haven’t been politically involved before but everyone shares this feeling and needed an outlet to express their disgust for these useless and meaningless tests that are eating up the resources of these schools and wasting our children’s time.”

“I thought maybe there’d be 50 people here,” said Ravitch, who is the son of vocal education activist, Diane Ravitch. “I hope that this is just the beginning.”

“Tests had their time and place for the last couple of decades but they’re absolutely taking over teaching and learning, and it just seems crazy,” said Dohra Ahmad, a parent at P.S. 261, which rallied against standardized testing in May. The school principal, Zipporiah Mills, supported the boycott by refusing to administer Pearson’s test this week.

Children who boycott the field test will not be punished but those that sit out of state tests will be assessed by their class work, which could be more subjective.

Tiny voices also echoed out the rally’s slogans as hundreds of children joined in the colorful protest, many carrying pineapple signs, in alluded to a problematic test questions that earned Pearson ridicule this spring.

“It’s not fair that my teacher had to take away so much time from teaching us just to give us these tests and grade them,” said Max Servetar, a sixth grade student at M.S. 54, who didn’t take the field test that his class was scheduled to take yesterday.

“It certainly seemed like they had plenty of opportunity to field test the kids without putting them through another session of testing, “added Beth Servetar, Max’s mother, who is the PTA vice-president at P.S. 87.

The protest didn’t include teachers or principals, according to Jane Hirschmann, who co-chairs Time Out From Testing.

“We really made this a parent led movement because parents never have a voice, and we thought it was time,” said Hirschmann. “In two short weeks, we had to get the word out and we were able to do it. The more parents hear about it, the more outraged they become because our kids are totally over tested.”

One mother, Jessica Dineen, said she noticed that more parents are becoming involved with high-stakes protests.

“What we’re really happy about is that there seems to be a ground swell this year,” added Dineen, whose children attend Brooklyn New School. “Parents with kids in kindergarten are activating on this issue. The time to do it would be now.”

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.