cheat sheet

Most monitored schools were flagged for cheating in advance

All but four of the three dozen schools that monitors visited in April as part of the city’s test security program had previously been the subject of cheating allegations.

Last spring, the Department of Education sent test monitors into 37 schools during a six-day period when students take standardized state tests, the results of which weigh heavily in how schools and teacher performances are measured.

Officials had previously billed the visits as a randomized tool to deter school staff from violating test security guidelines.

“Even schools that don’t actually get a visit … know that they could get a visit at any moment,” spokeswoman Connie Pankratz said of the program in August.

But it turns out that 33 of the 37 schools were not randomly selected at all, according to officials. Instead, the department was taking a hard look at the test administration practices of schools where it had already dispatched investigators to look into allegations of cheating.

Not all of the investigations are complete, but the ones that were substantiated turned up a mix of violations that could have given students a chance of performing better on the high-stakes tests. At one school, for instance, students used calculators on the exams even though they were prohibited.

The disclosure comes as the city grapples with ways to ensure that its test scores remain credible, even as the incentives to achieve higher scores multiply and funding for security measures remains scarce. In 2011, monitors visited 97 schools, but Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department reduced the program this year because of cuts to the central budget.

Investigators found violations at six of the 33 investigated schools, officials said.

The department provided basic information about the investigations to GothamSchools, but did not release entire reports from the cases.

At Aspire Preparatory Middle School, a teacher handed out calculators to students for a state exam, even though the devices were banned. At Esperanza Preparatory Academy, a staff member instructed teachers to give students more time on tests than was allowed.

Esperanza was among the schools that saw an unusually large decrease in test score proficiency rates in 2012 after monitors visited, just one year after the school doubled those rates.

At four schools where allegations were substantiated, Pankratz said a single teacher violated test proctoring guidelines by “providing assistance to students during exam administration.”

The four schools were M.S. 324 (Manhattan), P.S. 46 (Bronx), P.S. 044 (Bronx), and P.S. 193 (Brooklyn).

Principals at the schools either declined to comment or did not respond to requests seeking comment.

At one of the schools, P.S. 44, the number of fourth grade students who passed their math test nearly tripled in 2011; that number dropped by more than 40 percent after monitors visited.

“We have taken appropriate disciplinary action against these teachers,” Pankratz said, but she did not provide additional details.

Not all of the violations may have been intentional. A source said that the cheating allegation at M.S. 324 emerged from a misunderstanding and that it was substantiated on a technicality.  The person said that a teacher was overheard telling students who had finished their exams to review their answer sheets before submitting it.

Teacher proctors aren’t allow to speak during the exam except when giving directions or answering questions about the directions.

At 19 of the 33 schools, the department could not substantiate allegations of cheating or other test improprieties. That includes Choir Academy of Harlem, where test scores and graduation rates increased during the two-year helm of a former principal who was denied tenure and removed from the school last January. The test scores plummeted after the principal left and test monitors visited.

Eight schools are still under investigation.


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.