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.

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.