Slamming the Exam

At Success Academy schools, high-octane test prep leaves nothing to chance

PHOTO: Success Academy
Some 2,300 Success Academy students attended a "Slam the Exam" rally before last year's state English tests. The network goes to great lengths to make sure students are ready for the exams.

Before the state math tests began this week, the Success Academy charter school network had left nothing up to chance.

School leaders had provided teachers with color-coded agendas with precise instructions for every few minutes of test days, along with boxes of supplies that might come in handy — from pencils and tissues to extra clothes for students and deodorizing powder to sop up vomit.

Teachers had been taught the proper way to hand out tissues during the test (pass the student a new sheet first, then use a second sheet to grab the used tissue). They knew to set their classroom temperatures to between 66 and 70 degrees, and to call each student’s family every evening before a test to remind them of the next morning’s exam.

On test days, some teachers would take Success-funded cabs to pick up chronically late students (“Taxi Scholars,” as the agendas refer to them). Outside auditors, who had already observed the network’s practice tests, would monitor the real exams to safeguard against charges of test-rigging.

But students were perhaps the most prepared of all. They had spent weeks taking practice tests modeled off the actual state exams. They starred in test “dress rehearsals,” where exact testing conditions were simulated. Some had even practiced tearing perforated reference sheets out of mock test booklets.

If history is any guide, the preparation will pay off. Last year, Success students’ pass rates on the new and much harder state exams beat those of every other city charter school network and far surpassed the city and state averages.

Success says test prep is a minor factor in its students’ remarkable scores. More important, it insists, are the network’s curriculum, teacher training, and longer school days.

“No amount of test preparation will enable a child to do well on these challenging tests without extremely high-quality instruction,” Success CEO Eva Moskowitz said in a statement.

Success is the city’s largest and most polarizing charter school network, and its high test scores have been the subject of passionate debate. Critics have said the network has boosted its scores by “counseling out” hard-to-teach students (a charge Success denies) and by not replacing many students who leave.

What’s less debatable is that outstanding test scores are crucial for Success Academy. They have enabled the network to attract an army of well-heeled, results-oriented donors. And recently they bolstered the network’s case when it appealed to lawmakers for support after the city blocked some Success schools from moving into public buildings.

To ensure it achieves those results, Success invests an extraordinary amount of time and resources into preparing students for the state exams, according to interviews and conversations with current teachers, parents, and students from several Success schools, as well as a review of internal Success documents.

Many of those interviewed said the work leading up to the test was rigorous and conceptual, a far cry from rote “drill-and-kill” prep, and a valuable use of school time considering the high stakes attached to the exams.

“I’m all for it,” said Maria Torres, who drives her daughter from Staten Island to a Success school in Harlem each day. “The more instruction they get, the more prepared and confident they are.”

But others said the intensive test preparation distorts students’ view of the purpose of education and detracts from learning not directly related to the exams.

“I think it’s important that if they’re going to be tested on something, they feel prepared to do it,” said one teacher who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But I don’t think it needs to come at the expense of authentic learning, which is what’s happening.”

At Success, students encounter tasks modeled off those on state tests as early as the fall, when they are given network-produced packets with reading passages and questions during sessions called “Close Reading Mastery.” Around winter break, they take full practice tests. By March, students answer test-inspired questions every morning, and teachers report their daily scores to the network.

In the weeks leading up to the exams, test preparation dominates the school day.

Before the English tests, that means eight reading passages with questions every day at one school. In the lead-up to the math tests, another school’s schedule showed students taking a two-hour practice test in the morning and another two-hour practice test in the afternoon, with some students scheduled to spend recess going over wrong answers.

Teachers said they lose their own prep periods during these weeks and students miss out on academics — from reading about current events to studying history — that are not assessed by the state exams. To pack in more test prep, the network holds Saturday sessions and put off spring break until after the math exams. In the afternoons after the tests this week, students will solve practice problems modeled after the next day’s exams.

Some teachers and parents said all this preparation builds up students’ work ethic and tenacity, but others worried that it skews their sense of what it means to be successful.

“Their self worth is all tied to their performance on this test,” a teacher said.

The network goes to great lengths to keep students happy as they are chipping away at all this work.

Teachers receive boxes of prizes — basketballs, bracelets, magnets, puzzles, socks — to reward students based on their effort and scores on the daily practice tests. Other students earned Popeyes chicken, pizza, or trips to the park. One school paid a street vendor to pass out ice cream to students after last Saturday’s “Slam the Exam” prep session.

Students receive daily reports with their practice-test results. Those who achieve top scores have their headshots posted on a hallway bulletin board, called the “3s and 4s Club,” in one school. But low-scoring students also see their results posted in school hallways. Those students, along with ones who made careless mistakes or were not invested in the practice tests, miss recess to attend extra work sessions, called “Effort Academy” or “Revision Academy.”

“If there’s noticeable areas for improvement, then we work on it,” said one teacher. “Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to improve.”

Success also finds ways to keep teachers invested.

The network pays for catered lunches for staff during the weeks of test preparation and issued every teacher new Converse sneakers. (The shoes come in handy on test days, since Success teachers are required to wear soft-soled shoes to reduce noise.)

More galvanizing are the daily, network-wide emails that rank teachers by name based on the percentage of their students who passed that morning’s practice tests. Multiple teachers said they were motivated by the rankings — “You want to have your name on the top of that list,” said one — and noted that top-ranked teachers share tips and materials.

Those rankings may carry consequences: A bottom-ranked teacher was told she is being demoted from a lead to an assistant teacher, according to two teachers who learned of the move. They find the ranking system demoralizing.

“I constantly feel criticized and under pressure,” one said.

Kevin Heffel, Success Academy’s instructional chief, said in a statement that the network believes educators should be held accountable for “preparing our scholars to succeed,” and that it provides teachers “extensive professional development and support to help them meet this goal.”

Heffel added that Success considers test preparation a matter of equity.

“Minority children have historically been denied educational opportunities because they haven’t been adequately prepared for standardized testing,” he said. “We owe it to our kids to make sure they’re ready.”

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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.