By the numbers

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

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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.