better late than never

At long last, state releases Common Core-aligned test questions

A sample question from a sixth grade math assessment.

Educators sweating the state’s shift from old to new learning standards have received their first clues to what new tests will look like.

Teachers across the state opened their email inboxes Tuesday to an announcement from State Education Commissioner John King: Sample test items are now available.

Educators across the state have known for more than a year that next year’s elementary and middle school reading and math tests would be aligned to the new standards, known as the Common Core. But they hadn’t yet gotten detailed information about the assessments to help them revamp their instruction.

“It’s true that this is going to be a change in terms of the topics that are taught and the number of topics,” Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, said this spring. “Planning for that is difficult given that we don’t know all the information at this stage.”

In his letter to teachers, King quoted an upstate official who told him, “The items are ambitious, but not unattainable.”

“We must be ambitious,” King added.

The Common Core shifts the focus of English lessons from narrative fiction to expository and argumentative writing. In math, it emphasizes word problems and problem-solving. And across all subjects, it favors assignments that deal with authentic, real-world questions.

The sample items reflect those preferences. Literary passages are pulled straight from classic literature, including works by Leo Tolstoy for third-graders and Jack London for seventh-graders, and informational texts that are actually in use, such as passage published by the Federal Trade Commission about the dangers of identity theft. In math, students are asked to consider the amount of water professional football players consume and the size of a school locker.

The state’s note for teachers points out that the locker question is asking fifth grade students to apply formulas in a real-world context, rather than simply calculating the volume of a rectangular prism. The state’s explanations also emphasize that the sample items are only meant to demonstrate the level of complexity of the coming questions, not the actual content next year’s tests will contain.

Molly Elverson, a seventh-grade math teacher, said the state’s disclaimer put her at ease that the new assessments would encourage a deeper, more rigorous treatment of the curriculum.

“It makes it seem like they will be expecting the students to actually understand, use and apply the topics they are taught,” she said in an email.

The questions looked “fair,” she added, but would pose new challenges to her students.

“I think the questions will push teachers to teach at a higher level,” she said, because many of the questions address multiple subjects at once. “In the past, topics were taught in a vacuum and questions only tested one standard at a time.”

Next year, state officials will not only have to make sure the new tests are aligned to the Core, but also that the tests are free of the quality-control errors that have plagued the most recent crop of tests. Those errors have raised larger questions about the overall quality of the tests, particularly after one heavily rewritten literary passage about a sedentary pineapple appeared on this year’s eighth-grade reading tests.

State officials have vowed to only use authentic passages that have been published elsewhere from now on. But critics and education officials, including Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, says the tests need to become dramatically more rigorous, with questions and answers that make sense.

At a policy breakfast last month, Tisch said she warned Pearson officials that their mistakes have eroded public confidence in the tests just as they are poised to change dramatically.

“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.”

State officials have already posted curriculum guides and lesson plans on their website, EngageNY, and they have directed educators to an electronic library of resources, called the Common Core Library, being produced by New York City teachers. Teachers tasked with reviewing and building out the library have cautioned that not all of those materials are perfectly aligned to the Common Core, and still need to be refined to help teachers prepare for the new state exams.

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.