Pro-tester

Merryl Tisch: Opting out of the state exams is a ‘terrible mistake’

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch with then-State Education Commissioner John King in 2014. Tisch said she would "think twice" about opting into the state tests if she were a parent with a student with special needs.

Parents who keep their children from taking the annual state exams are making a “terrible mistake,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a speech last week where she urged district officials to explain to families why testing is important.

With less than a month before students start taking the English and math tests, which are used to rate teachers and schools as well as track student progress, Tisch said the state will try to dissuade parents from boycotting the exams. Last year, up to 60,000 students opted out of the tests statewide, while 1,925 did so in New York City — a tiny fraction of the city’s test takers, but a more than four-fold increase from the previous year.

“I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing,” Tisch said at a New York State Council of School Superintendents conference March 9 in Albany, according to her prepared remarks. She added that the state would not “force” students to take the exams, but “we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.”

Tisch’s comments come amid a rancorous statewide debate over testing reignited by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal this year to dramatically increase the weight of test scores in state-mandated teacher evaluations. The state and city teachers unions fiercely oppose that plan, as do many of the parents and educators who argued during city-wide rallies last week that the proposal is unfair to teachers and will lead to even more test preparation in schools.

Tisch, who has also called for test scores to play a greater role in teacher ratings, addressed those concerns in her speech. She said she agrees that the tests themselves could be improved, but said parents who boycott the exams are opposed to the very idea of judging educators based on student test scores.

“They have said they want to bring down the whole system on which adult accountability is based — even if only a little bit — on evidence of student learning,” she said.

Tisch went on to argue that annual testing is vital to see how well schools are helping students meet the demands of the new Common Core standards, and whether the state’s “multi-billion dollar investment in education” is paying off.

“We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up,” she said, adding that most people also do not refuse to get vaccinated. “We should not refuse to take the test.”

Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies held a joint rally last week as part of city-wide protests of Gov. Cuomo's education policies.
PHOTO: Justin Weiner
Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies held a joint rally last week as part of city-wide protests of Gov. Cuomo’s education policies.

Kemala Karmen, who opted her two children out of last year’s tests, said it is “insulting” and “condescending” for Tisch to suggest that parents need test scores to know how well their children are doing in school. She said that reviewing her daughters’ class work and speaking with their teachers offers a much richer and more accurate picture of their progress than the standardized tests, which she said are flawed and overly time consuming.

One of her daughters is a fifth grader at the Brooklyn New School, an elementary school in the borough’s District 15, a hotbed of anti-testing activism. About 80 percent of students in tested grades at Brooklyn New School opted out last year, and 75 families have already turned in letters stating their plans to do so this year, Karmen said. She said Tisch’s comments suggest that state officials are worried many families will boycott the tests again this year.

“It’s obvious they’re scared,” Karmen said. “This is growing.”

In contrast to Tisch, city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has expressed mixed views about the use of test scores. She said they should count for no more than 30 percent of a teacher’s rating, rather than the 50 percent Cuomo has proposed, and she changed the city’s school report cards to emphasize other measures in addition to test scores.

But while she has told principals to respect the decision of parents who keep their children from taking the exams, she said she personally feels it is important for students to get used to taking tests.

“I want to be very clear, I do believe in the test,” Fariña said last week on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. “I think kids will be tested throughout all their lives, and I think meeting challenges is part of what they need to do.”

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.