take your time

Students will not face time limits on this year’s state tests, Elia says

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at an education forum last year.

Students will be given as much time as they need to complete the state exams this spring, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told lawmakers Wednesday, one of several “major changes” she said are coming to the annual tests.

The department is also considering making the tests shorter and involving teachers more heavily in reviewing the questions, Elia said during an education hearing in Albany. The adjustments come after thousands of students boycotted last year’s tests, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a testing task force that called for a complete overhaul of the state’s learning standards and assessments.

One of that group’s recommendations was for the state to consider untimed exams, noting that parents and teachers say the time limits provoke undue anxiety in students.

“Part of the stresses that we have on kids is that they were timed, and particularly younger children,” Elia said Wednesday. “So if they are working productively then they will be able to continue the assessment.”

In New York, students in grades three to eight take the federally mandated tests in April, with the English and math exams each spread out over three days. Elia told lawmakers at one point that “next year, if possible, we will shorten the days,” though she later made clear that this year’s tests will still take place over a total of six days.

Students are currently given 60 to 90 minutes to complete each day’s test, depending on the subject and the grade level. In recent years, the state has reduced the amount of time each test is designed to last.

State education spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement Wednesday evening that Elia is “moving forward with a plan to allow students who are ‘productively working’ to complete their exams.” The department is working on a guidance document that is will share with schools “shortly,” he added.

New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said Wednesday that she would “totally applaud” the elimination of time limits, which could help alleviate parents’ concerns that students lack “stamina” to finish tests.

“I think that’d be great,” she told reporters after her testimony in Albany. “I would strongly support it.”

The state teachers union, which actively supported the test boycott, was less enthusiastic about the time change.

“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn said in a statement, adding that the tests and learning standards need to be overhauled.

Since the state rolled out new tests in 2013 to match the more rigorous Common Core standards, many parents and educators have complained that students have struggled to complete them within the allotted time. That is especially true for the English exams, where students are expected to repeatedly return to given passages to answer detailed questions.

“We have spent the year teaching students to be careful, thoughtful, deep thinkers,” a fourth-grade teacher wrote in an online forum about the 2014 reading tests. “Today the objective was speed.”

A state education department fact sheet says that students who need extra time are given it; however, a manual for administrators suggests that extra time is reserved for English learners or students with disabilities. The fact sheet also says that a 2013 analysis by the department found that the amount of time students were given to complete the tests did not impact their scores.

Elia also said Wednesday that the state is reviewing questions to make sure they are age-appropriate.

Parents opted their children out of state test in record numbers last year, in part to protest the Common Core standards and a new law that upped the weight of state tests in teacher evaluations.

Responding to the backlash, Cuomo convened a Common Core task force that recommended a number of changes assessments, including exploring whether students should have unlimited time on 3-8 ELA and math assessments. Elia served on the task force and presented the task force’s findings to the Board of Regents in December.

This is not the first time a high-ranking education official has floated the idea of untimed tests. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told Politico New York last spring that she considered the idea, but abandoned it due to opposition from unnamed advocates.

On Wednesday, Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino asked Elia to assure parents that she will reduce testing.

“When I say we’re going to do something,” she responded, “we’re going to do it.”

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.