context clues

City officials hit local libraries to help parents understand scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Samita Rahaman, an M.S. 101 eighth grader, told a city official why she hadn’t been able to access her test scores.

Carolina Martinez was shocked when she logged on to the city’s student data system on Monday to see her daughter’s fifth-grade state test scores.

Sitting at a computer station at the Parkchester Library in the Bronx, with a Department of Education staff member at her side, Martinez said she saw that her daughter, Stephanie Bravo, had gotten 1’s in math and reading — the lowest scores possible.

The bad news came as a surprise because Stephanie had gotten much higher scores, 3’s and 4’s, as a fourth-grader at P.S. 106 in 2012, Martinez said, and her teacher last year said Stephanie was doing well.

Leaving the library, Martinez said she didn’t understand why Stephanie’s scores had fallen so far. She said she hadn’t heard that the state had adopted new standards, known as the Common Core, to propel students toward college readiness.

That wasn’t the outcome that department officials hoped for when they fanned out to libraries across the five boroughs this week for “Log On and Learn” events aimed at helping parents access and interpret their children’s scores. 

The department has held similar events for the past two years to help parents overcome technical difficulties to access ARIS ParentLink, the data system for parents where individual students’ scores were uploaded over the weekend. This year, the department added more staff at the events because of the added goal of explaining the new, often lower scores and the Common Core context behind them, which they did with the assistance of reams of pamphlets in multiple languages.

Before the test scores came out last month, city officials warned that they were likely to be far lower than in the past because of the new standards. This week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott took to the airwaves to reassure New Yorkers about what they would see when they logged into ARIS.

“These scores represent a new higher tougher standard, and that’s important,” Walcott said on the Brian Lehrer Show on Monday. He added, “We understand it will be a shock.”

It was a theme reiterated to parents at the Parkchester Library, who mostly spoke limited English and communicated with department staff with the help of their children or Nasima Akhter, a Bengali interpreter hired by the department.

“They told her not to worry because the standards are new,” Akhter said about another mother who learned that her son’s scores were lower this year than last year. “It’s not only her son who got a 2, because the tests are harder now.”

Carolina Martinez says she was surprised to see her daughter's scores plummet this year.
Carolina Martinez says she was surprised to see her daughter’s scores plummet this year.

Akhter said the Common Core came up in some but not all of the conversations between parents and department staff. Some parents, she said, only asked how to log onto the system or retrieve lost passwords and didn’t learn about the new standards.

But even students who didn’t know the name “Common Core” said they had noticed a change in the tests.

Rakih Ishraq, who is entering fifth grade at P.S. 106, said the tests were harder this year, but that his scores improved. “Maybe because the teachers went harder on the lessons so I would really learn,” he said. Ishraq translated for his mother, who immigrated from Bangladesh in 2000.

Samita Rahaman, a rising eighth grader at M.S. 101, said she had heard about the Common Core from her teachers.

“They said they made new standards, the Common Core,” she said. “To me the [reading test] seemed sort of messy. Half of the school didn’t finish [the test], and there was crying and tantrums.” Rahaman said that when time was called her essay was only half done.

Rahaman’s mother, Nilima, had deactivated the e-mail address linked to her ARIS account, so Rahaman hadn’t been able to see her scores. For a few minutes it looked like department officials wouldn’t be able to help, because only Rahaman’s father’s name was in the system, and he was at work and wouldn’t get home until midnight. Rahaman said she often translates for her mother and that people aren’t always understanding of the constraints of her father’s work schedule.

In this case, though, the family eventually got online and found good news — two fours, despite the unfinished essay. Rahaman said she was satisfied with the department officials who staffed the event, despite the snafus.

“I think our voices showed some aggression,” she said. “But they were very polite and sophisticated.”

Parents who aren’t able to log in online and can’t make one of this week’s events can ask at their schools when school opens, officials said.

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.