2015 state tests

New York City scores on state tests inch up as opt-out movement triples

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
Assistant attorney general Jonathan Fero, center, addresses the Colorado Supreme Court in 2013 at a hearing for another education case, Lobato vs. State of Colorado.

New York City’s scores on state tests continued to inch up in 2015, though the number of students refusing to sit for the tests this year tripled.

Just over 35 percent of city students in grades three through eight passed the math exams, up one point over last year. In English, just over 30 percent of students passed, a two-point increase over last year that brought the city closer than ever to the state average, according to figures released Wednesday.

“For the second straight year and for the first year fully on our watch, New York City’s children have raised up their test scores in both math and English,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The state also released final tallies of the number of students who opted out of the tests, after that movement saw dramatic growth over the last year. Twenty percent of eligible students statewide opted out of the tests, following waves of parent protests in many districts and the encouragement of the state teacher’s union.

In the city, the numbers were smaller. Only 1.8 percent of test-takers boycotted the math tests and 1.4 percent sat out the English tests — a tiny fraction of students, but a more than threefold increase over 2014’s percentage and a major increase over the roughly 350 students who opted out in 2013.

The city’s modest test-score gains were shared by every racial and ethnic group, though not every grade. Third, fourth, and eighth graders saw very slight declines in math scores, while all grade levels saw English scores rise. Still, fewer than one in five Hispanic and black students passed the exams, while more than half of white and Asian students did. The gaps were even wider for students who are still learning English.

[See what city schools saw the biggest gains and dips here.]

Still, the results were good news for Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña. 2015 was their first full school year at the helm of the city school system, and the third year since officials adjusted the tests to align with the Common Core standards, which sent scores tumbling in 2013. Earlier this year, city officials lost their fight with state lawmakers

“My guess is that the mayor and chancellor are breathing a sigh of relief, considering the kind of siege they’re under form some media and state policymakers,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of education and sociology at Teachers College.

The state’s proficiency rates remain higher than New York City’s, though the city has nearly closed that gap in recent years.

Across the state, 38.1 percent of test-takers met the state’s proficiency bar in math this year, up from 36.2 percent last year. In English, 31.3 percent earned a proficient score, up from 30.6 percent last year, which state officials called “modest progress.”

Officials also released detailed demographic information about the students across the state who sat out the tests. Those students were more likely to be white, from wealthier districts, and were more likely not to have passed last year’s test, according to the state education department. In New York City, 39 percent of the students who opted out of the tests did not earn a passing score in 2014, the department said.

The fact that so many of the boycotting students did not pass last year’s tests suggests that this year’s statewide results could be slanted in some way. The large number of opt-outs in the state, but relatively few in the city, could also muddy city-state comparisons.

“There is no question that when you have approximately 20 percent of students not take the tests, the results would have variation based on that,” Elia said.

The city’s charter schools continued to outdo citywide proficiency rates in math, but lag in English. Proficiency rates at charter schools increased from 28 percent to 29.3 percent in English, and from 43.9 percent to 44.2 percent in math. Those rates have improved at a slower rate than the district-school averages.

See more city-specific data here, and the statewide data here.

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.