harder better faster

Six months to Common Core-aligned tests, details start to flow

For multiple reasons, passages similar to "The Hare and the Pineapple," which netted the state criticism last year, will not appear on this year's state tests.

Next year’s state tests will be shorter, quieter, and potentially more offensive, state education officials said today.

The state math and reading tests that students in elementary and middle school take this spring — just over six months from now — will be the first that are aligned to new curriculum standards known as the Common Core. City and state officials have both warned that the tests will be tougher than what students have been used to, and in dribs and drabs they have released examples of Common Core-aligned test questions.

State officials outlined more nuts-and-bolts changes in a briefing with reporters today. They said that even though questions will more often test multiple skills, the overall length of the exams will not increase. For the youngest test-takers, students in third and fourth grade, the tests will actually decrease in duration, they said.

Last year’s tests were longer than ever before, with students in all grades sitting for around six hours of testing over six days. For third-graders, last year’s tests were more than twice as long as in 2011.

In another shift, the state will make it clear to schools that it’s okay for students to read quietly after they turn in their tests. At some schools, students have in the past been required to stay at their seats without anything to do until the maximum testing period elapsed, an arrangement that one anti-testing activist told the New York Times left her son playing “ballgames in his head.”

The state has also done away with one feature of past English language arts exams, the listening section, in which students answered questions about passages that their teachers read aloud. The Common Core does include a set of “speaking and listening” standards, but they are best assessed in oral presentations or conversations, officials said. That means they can’t practically fit into this year’s tests — and there is no timeline for developing assessments that do measure those standards, they said.

But the state still expects schools to incorporate the speaking and listening standards into their instruction. “Just because we don’t test it doesn’t mean it’s not important,” officials said.

A third change, to the tone and content of texts that appear on the English exams, reverses a longstanding tradition of asking students to read simplified versions of texts that have appeared elsewhere. A widely ridiculed passage about a race-running pineapple on last year’s eighth-grade reading test, for example, bore only a partial resemblance to the original story, according to its author. (That passage had appeared on other states’ tests for years; all of the questions on this year’s tests will be exclusively New York’s.)

Sometimes, the simplified passages reflected a sanitization effort to remove language and content that could be found offensive. Diane Ravitch documented the process by which real texts were emptied of potentially offensive content in her 2004 book “The Language Police.” And as recently as last spring, the city Department of Education wanted to bar 50 words from appearing on city tests out of fears that they would bother or alienate some test-takers.

But the Common Core’s demand for “authentic texts” means that no such editing can take place. Instead, students will see reading passages exactly as they have appeared elsewhere — at a balance of half fiction and half-non-fiction for elementary school students and 35 percent fiction and 65 percent non-fiction for middle-schoolers. And in keeping with the standards’ emphasis on argument, some of the passages might require students to encounter opinions that they or their parents do not necessarily share.

Officials said today that they wanted to warn the public about the new tenor of some content so there are “no surprises” when students open their test booklets in late April. But they signaled that are prepared to stand up to critics who challenge the content on the tests.

“Every viewpoint worth having is a viewpoint that somebody else might disagree with, including parents, including students, including teachers,” said Ken Wagner, the State Education Department’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and educational technology.

These changes and others will be detailed in the state’s annual testing guide, which officials said they aimed to release by the end of this month. In contrast to past years, when the guides were targeted to principals and contained mostly technical information, this year’s guide will be meant for classroom teachers, too. The guide will contain not only sample questions, which are already available in limited form, but also details about the weight that will be given to different standards and rubrics for how written responses will be graded.

Officials warned again today that test scores are likely to fall statewide as students are asked to show proficiency on tougher material than ever before. But they said they were confident that 2013’s test scores would be able to be compared to 2012’s, for the purposes of calculating student growth, one of several measures that state law requires be factored into teacher evaluations.

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.