testing testing

In Brooklyn, wary about state exams, but waiting to protest until after them

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams. The number of families who opted out of those tests increased dramatically this year.

As hundreds of parents, students, and teachers marched in front of P.S. 321 in Park Slope on Friday to protest the quality of this year’s state tests, a much smaller group waited for an opening. The women weren’t participating in the rally, but simply needed to drop their kids off.

“I understand their concerns, but that’s a teacher and school issue to work out, not to bring out anxiety for the children,” said one of the mothers, Misty March. “Testing is just a part of people’s lives.”

March’s perspective provided a sharp contrast to the backlash against testing that has swept portions of the city in recent weeks, as students and teachers faced a second year of harder state tests whose scores will, for the first time, influence teachers’ annual ratings. Anti-testing advocates estimate that at least four times as many families as last year are choosing to “opt out” of the tests, though the number still represents a tiny fraction of families citywide.

While a handful of P.S. 321 families skipped the tests, the school mostly waited until after the exams to protest. And in contrast to parent-led rallies against testing before the exams, the protest there today was spearheaded by teachers, who said seeing the English tests administered over the last three days left them sure that the tests would not provide a useful measure of students’ skills.

“The kind of things they’re testing would not correlate with somebody’s ability to read and understand what we want kids to be able to do,” said Liz Phillips, the school’s principal. “Day three, which was all short response and essays, was horrible. … It was the third day that pushed everybody over the edge.”

At P.S. 321’s urging, teachers at P.S. 29 in nearby Carroll Gardens — where Chancellor Carmen Fariña launched her teaching career — organized a protest outside their school this morning that drew a few dozen families. The teachers also distributed a letter that they had drafted before the test describing the negative influence of testing on the school.

Leah Brunski, one of three dozen teachers who signed on to the letter, said the teachers had struggled with when to publish the letter but decided to wait until after the English tests were over. “Now it’s not so much about opting out,” she said. “It’s a bigger conversation.”

P.S. 29 Principal Rebecca Fagin noted that families and educators at P.S. 29 hold diverse opinions about testing and said she sees her role as facilitating an ongoing dialogue about the issue. But she said her staff had been surprised by this week’s exams.

“The overwhelming feeling was that the tests really are not a true measure of what the Common Core asks of students,” Fagin said.

Just four families at P.S. 29 — which is located on the same street as Brooklyn New School, where more than 80 percent of families opted out of this year’s tests — chose to skip the exams. Some parents said they had even hired tutors to help their children prepare for the tests.

Lauren Young was one of them: Her son Leo is in fourth grade, and his score could influence where he attends middle school. Young said she had reserved judgment about the state tests because she knew that parents and educators had raised concerns with the state last year, the first to have the exams tied to the tougher Common Core standards.

“We were willing to give them another chance this year,” she said. “We wanted to be open-minded because we thought things would change, and they obviously haven’t.”

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PHOTO: Philissa Cramer
At P.S. 29, students and families shared their reactions to this year’s tests on posters outside the school this morning.

Fagin said that with Fariña at the helm, she expects the city Department of Education to improve the testing situation for families over time.

“I think the stakes for children are being lowered,” Fagin said. “I just absolutely know that there’s conversation and doing right by children is what’s at the forefront.”

But while Fariña has indicated that she wants to untie test scores and grade promotion standards, something that legislators have now mandated, she has not yet set a new promotion policy, leaving families unsure about the true stakes of this year’s tests.

At P.S. 321, Sonia de Beaufort said she considers tests a part of life, however unpleasant they might be. Her son Jonathan, a fifth-grader, said he found this year’s English test to be confusing.

“The questions were not really well-written,” he said. “You don’t really understand what they’re asking.”

But he said he was torn about whether they should not be administered at all, as some critics have demanded.

“The good side,” he said, “is that the test prepared you for the tests that will come in the future, like the SAT and in the eighth grade.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.