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.

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.

summer mix tape

Ten stories you might have missed over the summer (and should read now as a new school year begins)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Stand for Children received funding to support parent education.

There is no such thing as time off from covering education. While school doors were shuttered, plenty happened this summer on the Colorado education beat. Here, we’ve compiled stories that we hope prove useful as you ease back into your fall routines.

We’ve got your immunization data right here … 

For the second year, Chalkbeat tracked down immunization data for more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s largest school districts. Our database revealed that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records. Read our news story about the findings, check out these six charts that dig into the numbers and search for school-level data here.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg reflects on his sabbatical (a break not everyone appreciated)

In June, Denver Public Schools’ longtime schools chief returned from a six-month unpaid sabbatical in South America with his family. “It made us appreciate the extraordinary resources we have here,” he said in an interview about his experience.

A milestone for Colorado charter schools on diversity, but not so much on integration

For the first time, Colorado’s charter schools educated a larger proportion of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools, a state report showed. We took a closer look and found that does not mean charter schools are more integrated.

Race, policing and education during a summer on edge

This summer sadly provided no shortage of violence and heartache over issues that sometimes feel like they’re tearing America apart at the seams. We sought to bring some local perspective (and wisdom) to the debate by talking to an ambitious Manual High School student who took up a bullhorn at Denver street protests and to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

A middle school’s last-ditch effort to save itself 

An Adams County middle school running out of time to improve has placed its bet on more challenging, more personal teaching — and zero test preparation. Watch Chalkbeat later this week for a report on whether these efforts paid off in the form of improved state test scores. (Hopefully … the data are set to be made public Thursday).

Guess which Colorado school district had a high proportion of teachers designated to lose tenure …

Compared with other large Colorado school districts, Denver Public Schools had a higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure under a sweeping educator effectiveness law passed six years ago. We surveyed big districts about one of the consequences of Senate Bill 191.

Too darn hot to teach and learn 

As part of its big bond request of voters this fall, Denver Public Schools wants to try to cool off some of its hottest schools. We took a look at where the mercury soars the highest and found that in 12 of the 18 hottest buildings — some of which house more than one school — the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch exceeds the district average.

But the University Club has a lovely lunch menu (and squash courts, too)…  

What if the State Board of Education held a not-so-public meeting with the education commissioner at a private club downtown to prioritize goals, but didn’t get much of anything accomplished? That happened.

What we know — and don’t know — about Colorado remediation rates

Colorado’s college remediation rates inched upward after years of steady decline, a disheartening development. On top of that, we’re not getting the full picture, either, because of incomplete school-level numbers and non-existent district-level data.

Diet Coke: Coming soon to a high school vending machine near you? 

Despite opposition from advocacy groups, Colorado appears headed toward lifting a seven-year ban on diet soda in high schools. The rule change would clear the way for diet soda to be sold in high school vending machines and school stores, though districts could decide not to stock the drinks. We covered the issue before and after the State Board of Education’s initial vote.