early reviews

Difficulty of new state tests apparent on first day, teachers say

As the first day of this year’s state testing period came to a close this afternoon, teachers from across the city took to Twitter to share their takes on whether the exam is shaping up to be as tough as officials have warned.

State education officials caution that discussing the contents of the tests, the first to be tied to the new Common Core standards, could be grounds for termination for teachers. But teachers offered a thorough review without getting into specifics. Many said students struggled to complete the reading test in the allotted time. Others, in multiple grades, said some questions seemed to have multiple correct answers.

Valerie Leak tweeted, “7th[-grade] texts were manageable but Qs were v difficult. kids left guessing w 5 min left. Close reading required w not enough time.”

“Close reading” is a skill that the Common Core emphasizes, and students across the city have been practicing with it all year. But Binh Thai, an eighth-grade English teacher at University Neighborhood Middle School on the Lower East Side, told GothamSchools that the technique and others that the Common Core calls for worked against some students today.

“They maybe overused some of those skills,” he said. “In annotating every single paragraph, they just lost an enormous amount of time.”

Just after the test, Thai tweeted, “Have MPA, MSEd, MA & I cldn’t figure definitive answers 2 some ELA test questions. Kids shdn’t experience this lvl of stress.”

Robbie Havdala shared a similar sentiment. “I scored in the 95th percentile on the GRE verbal this year yet had trouble answering multiple 7th grade ELA test questions,” he wrote.

Mike Locker wrote, “7th/8th: Not enough time for many students; more than several questions seemed to have two valid answer choices.”

ChristinaMLuce tweeted, “My 6th grade students took the entire 90 mins & said the reading was challenging & some questions difficult to understand.”

“Challenging for sure!” tweeted Alison Candamil, a teacher at Harlem Success Academy 4. She added, “intricate questions that required a lot of higher level thinking. Passage difficulty was fair.”

Some educators had less even-handed takes on the new tests. Rratto, who has been critical of the new standards and the State Education Department’s rollout, wrote, “5th grade question vocabulary was an unpleasant surprise.. Ex… which paragraph changed the focus?”

Earlier in the day, he had alluded to a different problem on the test, tweeting, “One should expect an example of inform text on a state test would give accurate and correct info… Not in NYS.”

Sunshinaya wrote, “The 3rd grade NYS ELA was developmentally inappropriate for 3rd graders. The questions were difficult and tricky.”

Earlier in the day, she had tweeted, “Watching students with special needs take the NYS ELA exam but not being able to do what we do in the classroom as teachers is frustrating.”

And Hadas DG wrote, “Students with SpEd extensions were working to the very end of the 135 min. Unclear policy regarding IEPs & reading Qs aloud.”

Other parents and teachers gave the tests better reviews. “My 3rd & 6th graders said test was fair. Both said teachers prepared them well & covered the material. Very promising review,” wrote Mike Reilly, a parent who sits on the Community Education Council for District 31 in Staten Island.

“The test did not in my view turn out as scary as the sample questions suggested,” Yisroel Feld, a teacher at Sinai Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school in Brooklyn, wrote on the school’s website. “The texts were accessible, somewhat engaging. They were on average longer than in the past, but all in all appropriate. The questions were varied and, at this first glance, pretty well crafted.”

Today’s testing included only multiple-choice questions based on fiction and nonfiction passages. Over the next two days, students will complete additional portions of the test that include short-answer and essay questions. Next week, students will take math tests.

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.