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.”

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.