grading the grading

Efforts to curb Regents exam score inflation hit a road bump

The Regents exam that high school students are most likely to fail will not be scored under a new system designed to curb score inflation.

In recent years, exams across the city received a disproportionate number of 65s, suggesting that teachers might be bumping up the scores of students on the verge of passing, sometimes illicitly. Aiming to reduce incentives to pad scores, the Department of Education last year began rolling out a system in which teachers are not permitted to grade exams taken by students in their school.

A year ago, 27 schools participated in “distributed scoring,” and 163 schools used the model in June. Overall, the proportion of exams scoring exactly 65, the score needed to pass, fell by half.

This month, all exams for all schools were supposed to be scored under the model. But when the department put out a call for teachers to grade the global history exam, only about 1,000 signed up, officials said. That meant the department was short at least 700 teachers to ensure that all global history exams could be graded on time.

The shortfall means the department’s shift to distributed scoring will be incomplete when students take exams later this month.

“Your school will score its own Global History & Geography Regents exams (as in prior years),” the department told principals in their weekly newsletter.

The global history test posed a particular challenge because it must be given on the last day of the exam period, a Friday, and includes many short-answer and essay questions, which take extra time to score. Schools need to know students’ scores by Monday morning to finish their second-semester schedules or, in some cases, certify students for graduation. Global history, with the lowest pass rate of all subjects, is often the last exam students must pass to graduate.

The department emailed every teacher who is eligible to score global history exams and enlisted the teachers union in recruiting them to sign up to spend their weekend at centralized grading sites.

“After all of that, there weren’t enough applicants to be confident that we could get the scoring done over the weekend,” said Adina Lopatin, the department’s deputy chief academic officer. She said the department has told the state to consider leaving quicker-to-score tests, such as in math, for the end of the week when it puts together next year’s test schedule.

For now, the department is encouraging principals to set up scoring so teachers at least do not grade their own students’ exams, an arrangement that is possible in schools with multiple teachers licensed in the same subject. In small schools, where there might be just one or two history teachers, that probably won’t be an option.

Lopatin said she anticipated that to the extent that global history tests received a disproportionate number of just-passing grades in the past, they would again this year.

“The Global scoring will be similar to what it has been in the past, so I don’t think we’ll see a reduction of that problem this year,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ll see an increase.”

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.