tipped off

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The audit concluded that the state’s paper-based system for receiving allegations of improprieties was disorganized and outdated, creating the potential for “underreporting and underestimation of information.”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.)

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.