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.”

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.