By the numbers

Aspiring teachers struggled on new tests, data show, prompting diversity debate

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

Black and Hispanic college students in New York fared worse on new teacher certification tests than their white counterparts, new data show, reprising concerns that efforts to improve teacher quality could undermine a simultaneous goal to boost diversity.

In the 2013-14 school year, 48 percent of aspiring black teachers and 56 percent of aspiring Hispanic teachers passed a new, more rigorous literacy exam, compared to 75 percent of their white peers, according to the data. The achievement gaps were also significant on a second new exam that measures candidates’ grasp of teaching methods for children with special learning needs.

The new tests are designed to make the profession more selective, and pass rates for all students have dropped. And while deans at colleges of education have quietly fretted that their black and Hispanic students would be more likely to be excluded, some were surprised when they saw the breakdown, which has not been released publicly but which a state education official provided to Chalkbeat this week.

“The statistics are quite alarming,” said Harriet Fayne, dean of Lehman College’s School of Education in the Bronx.

Now, some education officials are using the data to argue that the State Education Department should not require the tests for certification for at least one more year. They say colleges have not had enough time to adjust their curriculum to the new exams’ standards, while others questioned if they even measured the right skills.

Underpinning their concerns are that the tougher standards will lead to fewer black and Hispanic teachers at a time when the public school student population has become increasingly diverse. In New York City public schools, the share of black or Hispanic students — 68 percent — is almost double that of black and Hispanic teachers, who comprise just 35 percent of the teaching workforce.

“We need to have professionals who represent the children we serve,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin, who provided the data after citing it at this week’s Board of Regents meeting. Cashin said her numbers came from the state, although a spokesman for the department said he was unable to confirm them Wednesday.

Cashin wants to either lower the scores needed to pass or to provide an easier exam to candidates who fail the more difficult ones. But those ideas received some pushback from department officials who said stemming the flow of unprepared and unqualified teachers into classrooms was urgent.

“Diversity of the workforce, absolutely, is critical,” said Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner. But, he added, “I think we all want … to send a very clear message that it should be difficult to enter the profession.”

Last year’s results mirror longstanding racial disparities on teacher licensing tests. The issue has been the subject of court cases across the country, including in New York, whose literacy exams in the 1990s were ruled discriminatory in part because of 40-point achievement gaps.

But more recent versions of the exam became so easy that 99 percent of test-takers passed. That changed last year with the introduction of three new tests designed align with nationally established teaching standards. (Candidates also have to pass a fourth exam that covers a specific content area.)

Led by Cashin, the Regents this week directed Wagner to study how they might delay using the exams for one year and continue to address diversity concerns.

The debate reflects the complexity and competing values of the movement to improve teacher quality. Some researchers have found links between academic achievement and students who are matched to teachers with similar backgrounds, though that has not been found to be the most important factor. Black and Hispanic teachers are also already more likely to teach students in high-poverty city schools.

State officials have been revising teacher certification standards as one of many initiatives to meant improve teacher preparation, particularly for needy schools. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America and NYC Teaching Fellows specifically target those schools. Their approval of new training models, such as Relay and residency programs, as well as their directives to traditional education schools to overhaul their programs, have followed a common acknowledgement that colleges of education had grown too focused on theory and not enough on preparing teachers for the realities of the job.

“The reality is that all across the country – not just in the Empire State – too many teacher prep programs are not selective about whom they admit, and they are not offering and requiring sufficiently rigorous coursework,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has adopted the cause, too. This year, he is pushing for the ability to close down any education programs where fewer than half of students pass their certification exams for three consecutive terms.

The hardest exam to pass last year, for all teachers, was the new literacy test. Called the Academic Literacy Skills test, it measures reading and writing aptitude based on the Common Core standards. Statewide, 68 percent of teachers passed — though most only met a lower proficiency bar aligned to eighth-grade English standards.

The second exam, called Educating All Students, evaluates a candidate’s knowledge of teaching strategies for English language learners, students with disabilities, and students with other special needs. Seventy-nine percent of all aspiring teachers passed the exam last year, and pass rates for white, Hispanic, and black students were 83 percent, 67 percent, and 62 percent, respectively.

Pass rates for Asian candidates were 65 percent on the literacy exam and 71 percent on Educating All Students.

Of 12,652 students who took the literacy exam, most were white — about 61 percent. Ten percent of students were Hispanic, 7.5 percent were black, and 5 percent were Asian, and the breakdown of students who took the EAS was similar.

A national exam called the Teacher Performance Assessment, or edTPA, is the third new test. It requires students to gather video of their own classroom lessons into a portfolio to demonstrate and explain their teaching skills. Eighty-one percent of students passed that test, although those who failed could still get certified if they passed the old literacy exam.

Fayne, the Lehman College dean, said a variety of factors could be behind the persistent racial achievement gaps, which emerge more broadly even before students enter kindergarten. But explanations are less important than ensuring diversity remains a priority in any teacher-preparation policy changes, she said.

“Regardless of the ‘why,’ we still have to address the overarching question: Will we be able to recruit, prepare, and retain teachers who look like the children in our urban classrooms?” Fayne said.

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.