state testing

City teachers testify before U.S. Senate committee on reducing testing

Earth School teacher Jia Lee testified on high-stakes testing before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Wednesday.

Two New York City teachers were among a panel of experts called to testify on testing and accountability at a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday.

Earth School teacher Jia Lee and Harvest Collegiate High School teacher Stephen Lazar both spoke to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about how high-stakes testing has affected their Manhattan schools, offering frank assessments of the role testing should play in the government’s efforts to improve schools.

Up for debate was how to fix No Child Left Behind, the law that requires states to annually administer standardized tests. The law expired in 2007 but has yet to be re-authorized, and Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called for the committee to pass a bill overhauling it by the end of February.

“Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests? Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C. have to do with all this?” Alexander asked.

Lee, an outspoken critic of the state’s standardized tests and a special education teacher at the Earth School in Manhattan, told the Senate committee that test-focused policies have caused schools to become “data-driven” instead of “student-driven.”

“The great crime is that the focus on testing has taken valuable resources and time away from programming – social studies, art and physical education, special education services and [English language learners’] programs,” the fourth and fifth grade teacher said.

“As a teacher of conscience, I will refuse to administer tests that reduce my students to a single metric and will continue to take this position until the role of standardized assessments are put in their proper place,” she said. Last year, more than half of the small East Village school’s students were opted out of taking state Common Core-aligned exams by their parents, which allowed her to avoid administering them.

New York City parents opted out more than 1,900 students from taking state tests in 2014 – a 450 percent increase from the about 350 students that opted out in 2013. But the small group of students that didn’t take state tests last year still represents less than half of 1 percent of the city’s test-takers.

Stephen Lazar, an eleventh grade U.S. history and English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and a member of Chalkbeat’s reader advisory board, was the last to testify. He said the new law should remove mandated high-stakes tests, limit the number of tests used for accountability purposes, and allow schools to use performance assessments.

But despite the “many well-known flaws” of No Child Left Behind, Lazar said No Child Left Behind’s requirement that schools and districts to separate out the academic performance data of different student groups put a “much-needed spotlight” on achievement gaps, something that “should not be abandoned.”

Sen. Alexander’s draft bill, released last week, would still require states to provide annual academic data for various student populations. The draft also offers options to either give states flexibility over testing or keep No Child Left Behind’s current testing requirements.

As changes to federal testing requirements are considered, Lazar emphasized that teachers voices should be the loudest when it comes to deciding how their students are assessed. He recalled apologizing to his students every May for having to spend the last month of the school year having them “repeatedly write stock formulaic essays and practice mindless repetition of facts so that they could be successful on their state exams.”

“The stakes for my students force me to value three hours of testing over a year or learning,” he said. “Standardized tests measure the wrong things.”

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.