testing test drive

State looks to create its own computer-based tests as officials put off switch to PARCC

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

New York students could take their annual state tests on computers in 2017, according to a state document seeking bids for a contract to create new electronic English and math exams.

The five-year contract would begin in July, months before the state’s current $32 million contract with the testmaker Pearson expires in December. While the winning bidder would be required to create computer-based exams by spring 2017, schools will have the option to stick with the pencil-and-paper exams that students currently take in grades three through eight, the document adds.

That move further delays New York’s shift from print to computer-based tests, suggesting that many schools are not ready for the change.

State officials had previously planned to roll out computer-based tests this year, when a group of states will begin giving online exams tied to the Common Core standards. Officials later decided to hold off switching to the exams created by that group, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

The state’s latest decision to develop its own computer-based tests indicates that officials have no immediate plans to adopt the PARCC exams, even as other states make the switch. Instead, schools will have several more years to prepare for New York’s own digital tests.

“It will be at the discretion of each school and revisable annually, as to whether they will administer by paper or computer or both,” according to the request for proposals posted by the state education department last week, which calls this a “voluntary shift.” It adds that the state does not know how many schools will initially switch to computer-based tests, but expects the number “will increase each school year of this contract,” which would extend to 2020.

New York has been planning to convert to computer-based tests since at least 2010, when it adopted the Common Core standards and joined PARCC. In 2012, State Education Commissioner John King told districts to prepare to give computer-based tests by 2015, when the consortium’s tests were to be ready. (PARCC received a $186 million federal grant to build the “next-generation” assessments, which the group hired Pearson to help develop.)

But the next year New York decided not to immediately switch to the PARCC tests, which will be available at first in both paper and online forms. The decision was partly because not all schools had the necessary technology or Internet bandwidth to give the online exams. But it was also because officials had paid Pearson to create a pencil-and-paper Common Core test just for New York, which students first took in 2013.

Now, as other states in the consortium take the online PARCC tests this year, New York students will continue taking the state’s printed Common Core test. State officials have not said if or when New York will adopt the PARCC tests, though one top official recently said the state has “no current plans” to use them. The state education department did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday.

New York City officials have expressed interest in converting to online exams ahead of the rest of the state. Last year, 95 city schools took trial versions of the PARCC tests.

Still, many schools do not have the necessary technology. Only a quarter of city schools currently have enough devices to administer the online test, officials said last April, and many of the devices schools do have are outdated. A city education department spokesman said Wednesday that a switch either to PARCC or the state’s own computer-based tests “will require a transition period of several years.”

Even as the state prepares to build its own new tests, it is still possible it could switch to PARCC eventually, said Jack Bierwirth, the superintendent of the Herricks school district on Long Island and co-chair of the Council of School Superintendents’ assessment subcommittee.

The state could relatively cheaply convert its current paper exams into computer-based versions that it could use temporarily, he said. That would give the state time to find a new education commissioner, wait to see if federal testing laws change, and then decide whether to adopt the PARCC tests, Bierwirth said.

“To me,” he said, “this all ends up being essentially a few years of an interim assessment while the dust settles.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

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. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.