on the rise

Tennessee No. 1 in nation in growth on national science exam

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee's 2015 NAEP results last October.

Tennessee education officials have a new reason to say the state has the fastest-growing test scores in the country.

Tennessee outpaced almost all other states in gains on a science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, between 2009 and 2015, according to results released on Thursday.

On average, fourth- and eighth-graders across the nation posted 4-point gains on the 300-point test, administered to a sample of students in most states in 2015. Tennessee students saw their scores grow twice as fast.

“I’m a little biased, but I think the eyes of the nation are rightfully on Tennessee students and teachers,” said Gov. Bill Haslam.

The gains mean that Tennessee fell solidly in the top half of states on the test. Even so, nearly 60 percent of its students did not meet NAEP’s threshold for being considered “proficient” in science.

NAEP is the only ongoing assessment of what U.S. students know in different subjects. It calls itself the Nation’s Report Card because it’s the only platform to compare students across states. Recently, states have cited gaps between NAEP scores and scores on their own tests to toughen their academic standards and exams.

The latest science scores come after many states, including Tennessee, overhauled their reading and math standards and renewed attention to science instruction. Schools and districts nationwide have invested in what they are calling STEM education, an acronym that describes a new approach to incorporating science, technology, engineering and math into the school day.

The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged the shift, launching a program to recruit science teachers and expand computer science instruction.

“The data themselves don’t tell us why we’ve seen these improvements, but we do think investments we’ve made over the past eight years have made a difference,” Education Secretary John King said.

The next phase, King said, is for high schools to add more advanced science and math courses — something for which the new federal education law earmarks extra funding.

“We know from our civil rights data that there are many students who attend high schools where you can’t even take Algebra II or physics,” he said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says Tennessee already offers more rigorous math and science courses than other states, noting that Algebra II is a graduation requirement.

The state’s score increases mean that Tennessee performed better than more than half of other states, which Haslam called “a rare space” for his state. Only 18 states had average scores higher than Tennessee in fourth-grade science, and 20 did in eighth grade.

Tennessee has a goal to be in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019 for all tested grade levels. It inched over that threshold in fourth-grade math when those scores came out last year. This round of science scores means the state is halfway to its goal.

McQueen credited improvements to Tennessee’s English and math standards with helping students achieve in science, too. The state had not touched its science standards for nearly a decade — until last week when the State Board of Education adopted new standards that will reach classrooms in the 2018-19 school year.

“For a long time, Tennessee has had embarrassingly low results in the Nation’s Report Card, often ranking in the low 40s,” McQueen said. “We knew we had to improve quickly, and this would be a stretch. After all, the rest of the country is trying to improve, too.”

red carpet

#PublicSchoolProud has its Oscar moment as ‘La La Land’ songwriter shouts out his schools

Songwriter Justin Paul at the 2017 Academy Awards, where he credited his public school education in his acceptance speech for best song.

The recent movement to praise public schools made it all the way to the Academy Awards stage Sunday night.

Justin Paul, one of the songwriters for the movie “La La Land,” credited his public school education during his acceptance speech.

“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture were valued and recognized and resourced,” Paul said after winning the Oscar for best song. “And I’m so grateful for all my teachers, who taught so much and gave so much to us.”

Paul attended public schools in Westport, Connecticut, where he graduated from Staples High School. The school was also recognized in a recent documentary about its history as a rock venue in the late 1960s. Students recruited The Doors, the Yardbirds, and several other bands to play in the school’s auditorium.

The Oscars stage shoutout comes as people across the country have begun praising their own public schools on social media. The #PublicSchoolProud movement is a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has advocated for policies that let students leave public schools for private and charter schools.

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”