Test Protests

Anti-exam rallies fill the sidewalks outside dozens of schools

PHOTO: Annette Kathryn Konoske-Graf
In April, students, parents, and teachers marched outside P.S. 87 shouting "Show us the test."

Critics of the state English exams marched around P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side early Friday morning, chaperoned by their parents. The young demonstrators hoisted up handmade signs that read, “We Need Better Tests,” and “Too Much Pressure for 3rd Grade,” with frowny faces inside the O’s.

The students joined parents and educators from nearly 40 schools in Manhattan, along with a couple in Brooklyn and Queens, who took to the sidewalks outside their own schools Friday to protest the state English exams, which students sat for last week.

The exam backlash has been fueled by teachers and principals who said they were disturbed by confusing test questions that seemed disconnected from the state’s Common Core learning standards. Many parents, already anxious about the number of tests students must take, were alarmed to hear educators’ reports about the tests, much of which is not released to the public.

“When we heard teachers say they felt the tests were outrageous, how could we not trust what our teachers say?” said Ann Binstock, the mother of a fifth-grade student at P.S. 87.

“There are enough red flags,” she added, “that we can’t just continue to talk about this in the schoolyard anymore.”

The protests, which drew hundreds of people to some schools before the start of classes, followed a speech Thursday by New York State Education Commissioner John King, in which he fiercely defended the state’s education initiatives, including the new standards and tests.

He described recent debates over those efforts as “noise” and “drama,” and attributed some of the outcry to “misinformation.” And while acknowledging that some schools spend too much time preparing for tests, he insisted that the state had worked to reduce testing time. He added that the new Common Core exams “are better tests” than previous ones.

His comments struck a nerve with some of the principals, who usually avoid getting involved in education’s political fights, but felt impelled to refute the notion that misinformed members of the public were stirring up unrest about the tests.

P.S. 59 Principal Adele Schroeter said the hundreds of parents and students who filled the streets around her Midtown school Friday morning were “more than noise and drama, in spite of what John King might say.”

The demonstrations sprang up outside schools across Manhattan and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

More than 100 people rallied outside of P.S. 11 in Chelsea. At the P.S. 343 the Peck Slip School, a small school housed inside the education department’s headquarters, about 50 parents and staff members demonstrated.

At P.S. 131 in Chinatown, parents and teachers held a silent protest — the first ever at the school.

“For our parents, this is their first protest in their lives,” said Principal Phyllis Tam. “I am so proud of them.”

Some 200 parents, students, and staff also rallied outside P.S. 10 in Brooklyn and about 40 people gathered outside P.S. 244 in Queens.

“The more parents and community members learn about how unfair this year’s test was,” said P.S. 244 science teacher Christian Alberto Ledesma, “the more they want to be a part of the movement.”

Many parents criticized state restrictions that keep the public from seeing most of the test questions and prohibit educators from describing them. They also called references to brand-name products in some of the reading passages “product placement.”

A spokesman said that while the state education department only released 25 percent of last year’s exam questions, it plans to release “significantly more” this year. He added that the exam’s reading passages come from previously published articles and stories, and that if they contain references to company names, the state does not remove them.

Back at P.S. 87, after the demonstrators finished their march around the school Friday morning, they chanted, “Show us the test!” and “Just say nay to ELA!”

After that, the students scurried inside for the start of the school day.

Annette Kathryn Konoske-Graf contributed reporting.

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.