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Fariña signals she's open to untying test scores and promotion decisions

Speaking to parents in Brooklyn Wednesday night, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled another possible policy change—this time to Bloomberg-era promotion policies.

“This is all stuff we’re thinking about, so I don’t want to see tomorrow that this is absolute: Is there a way to rethink how we look at promotion?” she asked the parents, who were a mix of parent association leaders and parent coordinators from District 15, where she was once a principal and superintendent. “Does promotion have to be tied to a test?”

Changing the policy of allowing students to continue to the next grade level regardless of whether they passed state exams was a top priority of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s when he gained control of the school system in 2002. The use of test scores in student promotion decisions, teacher evaluations, and school grades prompted parents’ questions about test anxiety for Fariña.

Untying test scores from promotion decisions doesn’t necessarily mean reinstituting social promotion, which refers to promoting students based on their age. But Fariña’s response indicates one way she could make good on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise to reduce the city’s emphasis on standardized test scores.

The social promotion ban took effect for third grade in 2004 and was in place for grades three through eight by 2009. Some years, few students were affected by having to score at least a level 2—half of one percent of fifth graders in 2008, for example. (In 2012, the city backed down slightly, allowing students who had been held back multiple times to be promoted if they had shown certain gains.)

As social promotion was curtailed under Bloomberg, the city also put money into Saturday programs and intervention specialists at schools, Fariña noted on Wednesday. Anna Commitante, who became an executive director under new deputy chancellor Phil Weinberg last week, will be working to revive those intervention efforts and to improve Common Core-related professional development, she said.

And while she criticized how the tests have been used, the chancellor offered her full endorsement to the tougher exams themselves, just one day after the uproar over the new exams led state lawmakers to call for a delay in using them to evaluate teachers.

“Testing itself is not the issue. I just want to say clearly that I do think the Common Core is the right thing,” Fariña said. How the new standards are aligned with existing curriculums, though, is where “we’re trying to make sense of nonsense.”

Fariña made it clear that she did sympathize with many of the parents’ concerns about testing and student stress. She repeated the lines she used when testifying in Albany: when students urinate in class or throw up, it’s all gone too far.

But she cautioned the parents in District 15, many of whom have been at the forefront of the anti-testing push, that she wouldn’t encourage opting out of the state exams.

“Again, every parent needs to make their own decision. I don’t think necessarily opting out of the test is the greatest way to get the best outcome,” Fariña told them.

At the meeting, Fariña also praised the district’s parent associations, which often raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, for also “caring about your neighbors’ children.” She focused on how parents and principals in District 15 could use their expertise to help more needy Brooklyn schools through grant-writing and joint events, and encouraged school leaders to swap staff with schools in nearby Sunset Park.

A number of parents said they were happy to hear more specifics from Fariña about how she envisioned parents taking the lead in her old district. The middle ground on testing didn’t sit well with everyone, though.

“She isn’t presenting an alternative,” said Heather Abdel, vice president of P.S. 230’s parent association. “She’s not for testing, and she’s not for opting out.”

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.