assessing assessment

The theory behind one charter school's packed testing schedule

I recently reported about one mother’s high marks for the amount of testing at her son’s school, Explore Charter School in Brooklyn. Today I asked Morty Ballen, Explore’s founding principal, exactly how often Explore students are tested.

That depends on how testing is defined, Ballen answered. “There’s a really big difference between test prep and getting information from assessments,” he told me. Where tests, and test prep, are meant to judge students and teachers, assessments are used to generate information that teachers can use to improve their instruction, Ballen said. Explore prefers assessments.

So how are Explore students assessed, and how often? In a variety of ways, and every day. Here’s a summary of the school’s testing regimen:

  • Students complete tests and assignments that their teachers create on a daily basis.
  • They also take interim assessments several times during the year to give their teachers information about their progress in math, science, and social studies. These tests are created by Explore’s teachers.
  • Explore holds practice runs for both the math and ELA state tests to simulate the testing conditions for those tests.
  • Teachers work with each student one-on-one at least three times a year to check his or her reading skills. The number jumps to eight times for children in kindergarten and first grade.
  • Of course, Explore students take all required annual state tests.
  • Because administrators aren’t sure the state tests are rigorous enough, the school also gives something called the Terra Nova assessment once a year to see how Explore’s students stack up against other students nationally.

Does all of this testing cause students any anxiety? “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t” fear, Ballen told me. But he said students were quick to support the school’s recent decision to set their performance goal at 100 percent proficient on the state tests. “The adults were so much more scared about this than the kids,” he said.

As a charter school, Explore could face steep consequences if it doesn’t post high test scores. “Those tests keep us in business,” Ballen said. At the same time, he said, Explore’s charter status makes it able to take steps that prevent test anxiety from mounting as the big state tests approach, such as redeploying teachers’ time and energy based on students’ scores on interim assessments. “We can do that within a day, and we can hire people who are excited about that proposition,” Ballen said.

Another important feature of testing at Explore is the school’s focus on getting students and parents to understand the need for frequent assessments, Ballen said. About Stephanie Campbell, the mother I interviewed last week, he said, “She did not know what her kid knew and didn’t know until he was in second grade and came to Explore. That’s scary!”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.