accountability accountability

Regents endorse first steps in state's test security overhaul

ALBANY — Members of the Board of Regents today endorsed an independent review of the state’s procedures for investigating cheating.

The independent review is a first step in a complete overhaul of the state’s test security procedures that a State Education Department task force recommended last week. The Regents are reviewing the recommendations at their monthly meeting today and tomorrow.

Today’s vote to pursue the independent review came from the P-12 Committee, which supervises education from preschool through high school. With the committee’s endorsement, the measure is expected to pass easily when the entire board votes on it tomorrow.

Approval will trigger an “immediate” review, just as soon as the state finds an entity to conduct it. Education Commissioner John King said the state would look for entities to participate in the review at low or no cost to the state.

That review is likely to generate ideas for how SED can expand its investigative arm, which officials characterized as muddled.

Currently, cheating allegations are generally logged at the local district level. SED Deputy Commissioner Valerie Grey said today that complaints at the state level are logged through an anonymous hotline or directly to the Office of Assessment, but beyond that there is no clear chain of responsibility.

Grey said that she would look to hire investigative experts who could advise the state on how to form its own investigations unit.

“We’re looking for someone with extensive experience in investigations to take a look at what we do, in order to make sure we’re taking any sort of allegation as seriously as possible,” said Grey, posing hypothetical questions she hoped the review would answer. “What’s the intake process? Who’s responsible for looking into it and figuring out what is the proper follow-up?”

The committee also agreed to allow Grey to “further develop” a number of more specific measures that, if eventually approved and implemented, could overhaul test security as school districts know it. The proposals would centralize scoring at the state level, ban teachers from both proctoring and scoring their students’ tests, and instate erasure analysis and other tools to identify suspicious patterns of answers. Another proposal would develop a system where the open-answer section of tests would be scanned anonymously, then assigned out randomly for certified teachers to grade.

These items elicited the most discussion among the Regents, some of whom raised questions — as yet answered — about how much the proposals would cost.

The Regents emphasized that the move to tighten test security did not represent an attack on teachers’ integrity, but rather a necessary measure in a high-stakes testing environment. In her opening remarks, Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that New York State has the best teachers of any other state.

Kathleen Cashin, a former superintendent in New York City, said she partially disagreed with a proposal that would ban teachers from proctoring. In the elementary grades, she said, teachers should administer tests to their own students.

Cashin also recommended that every school be visited by testing monitors, a measure that she said proved to be effective when she was a superintendent in New York City.

“That is a preventive way, if someone is thinking of cheating, they might think twice if they knew someone was in the building touring,” Cashin said. “It’s just like athletes with drug tests. If they know they’re going to be drug tested, it will be preventive for some.”

New charter schools approved: The committee also voted to approve the charter applications for 18 new schools that would open in New York City in 2012. Two Regents from the city — Betty Rosa and Lester Young — abstained from votes, saying they had had more questions about the applications from KIPP and Success Charter School Network.

January Regents exams restored: The Regents also officially accepted the $1.5 million in donations solicited by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to restore January Regents exams, which the state eliminated to save money. But not every member was happy about it, with some complaining that the state had not restored funding on its own.

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede