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New York State's bulked-up test security team opens its inbox

A new form allows people to report suspicions of cheating on state tests online, simplifying a long-complicated process.

Starting today, school staffers can report their cheating suspicions online.

The state’s new test security watchdog has launched its website, allowing people to use an electronic form to file allegations about possible cheating by educators on state tests.

It’s one of the first concrete moves by the State Education Department’s new test security unit, created last year after a self-imposed audit of the department’s test security policies found them severely lacking.

The audit came after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged states to scrutinize their test integrity practices following a spate of high-profile cheating scandals. The scandals threatened to undermine the real and perceived value of test scores even as New York State was attaching higher stakes to its scores.

The audit concluded that the state’s paper-based system for receiving allegations of improprieties was disorganized and outdated, creating the potential for “underreporting and underestimation of information.” Plus, the Office of State Assessment did not have anyone assigned exclusively to investigate allegations that did come in.

Now, four investigators —  all former state and federal law enforcement officers — are ready to look into cheating allegations received online, according to Tina Sciocchetti, who heads SED’s Test Security and Educator Integrity office. The investigators are also working on piles of years-old cold cases absorbed from the assessment office.

Sciocchetti said her office would periodically release reports from closed investigations. Every August, the unit will release a summary of the number of cases it received and investigated in the previous year, she said.

In addition to making it easier for people to report cheating by educators, the test security unit is also opening up communication with New York City’s school investigators.

In the past, when state officials have asked the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation to look into an allegation they received, they rarely found out what came of the cases. Now, they will follow up to find out whether investigations have taken place and what they concluded.

“From the state’s perspective there was a real breakdown in the tracking of investigations,” Sciocchetti said. “What we recognized was that we really had to improve the communication among our offices.”

New York City is also working to bolster the way its school investigative units communicate with each other. The Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations and SCI, an independent unit, have long had a disjointed relationship. Each office requires allegations to be filed differently, and the two offices often volley allegations back and forth for months before any case is opened. Some investigations last years, and key witnesses aren’t always interviewed.

Last week, the city told principals that it had created a new office, the Office of Case Assessment and Review, to coordinate between the two investigative offices. The new office is meant “to provide extra support to principals, and the office will work directly with schools to facilitate investigations and provide guidance on disciplining staff,” said spokeswoman Connie Pankratz.

Pressure to respond adequately to credible cheating allegations is not coming only from the state. The mainstream media is also casting increased scrutiny on how districts handle allegations that could undermine their test score claims. Last week, a Frontline documentary on former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee included the story of a principal who filed a cheating allegation after she saw teachers erasing student exams just hours after students completed the tests. D.C. Public Schools and a federal investigator ignored her allegations, according to the report.

Until recently, New York State has had some of the country’s weakest test security policies, according to a survey conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported that many states were ill equipped to fully safeguard against cheating. New York officials said the AJC report did not accurately reflect New York’s test security practices because the department declined to respond to the newspaper’s survey. (The newspaper based its data on the state’s audit instead.)

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.