honor system

State tests already in city schools with weeks before test date

Schools conducting test prep this week — and, in some cases, next week during break — have been doing so with a potential cheat sheet nearby.

English language arts exams begin the Tuesday after spring break for students in grades 3-8. But schools have had the tests since as early as Friday — an arrangement intended to give test coordinators enough time to make sure the right number of booklets and answer sheets are on hand for the three-day testing period that begins April 17.

The state distributes exams to local districts weeks before the testing dates, and districts decide when to pass the tests out to schools. Like many districts across the state, the city Department of Education has long distributed tests to schools by about a week before the test dates. But this year, because the exams begin right after the city schools’ spring break — a schedule that caused hiccups when the state rolled it out this year to facilitate new teacher evaluations — the department decided to deliver the tests even earlier. Schools received the tests more than two weeks before they are due to begin.

The adjustment raises questions about how the department can ensure that all tests remain secure while they are in schools. The department has strict guidelines about who can handle test materials, for how long, and in what ways. Last week, principals received an extra reminder about test security this year.

“Please take all necessary steps to ensure that these exams are safeguarded during spring break,” read an item in this week’s Principal’s Weekly email newsletter.

But some principals are concerned that not enough is being done to make sure all schools closely adhere to the guidelines, particularly as some keep their doors open through the break to allow for additional test preparation.

“Basically it’s just a trust factor,” one principal told me.

Department officials have long maintained the city’s test security procedures go “above and beyond” the state’s requirements, and Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky characterized the city’s elementary and middle school exam security as “airtight” earlier this year.

And today Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he believed the guidelines would address the additional time that tests will be in schools.

“We haven’t had any major issues at all and so I’m confident in our teachers and I’m confident our safeguards will protect the tests,” he said.

Under the city’s rules, test coordinators are supposed to open the box to count the exams when they first receive the package of tests. But they are forbidden from removing a layer of shrink wrap that keeps the booklets’ content hidden. After verifying the number of exams, coordinators are instructed to then reseal the boxes and place them in a secure and locked space until testing day — this year, April 17. Then the completed exams must be delivered to a central office no later than 3 p.m. the day they are taken.

The department sends monitors to audit test protocol in about 10 percent of schools each year during the six-day math and English testing periods. It’s not clear whether they would be able to verify in all cases that the exam materials had remained shrink-wrapped until the test date.

After a 2010 audit into the city’s testing procedures raised concerns about the number of opportunities for school officials to access testing materials before the test date, the city began requiring all schools to administer tests on the first day of the state’s week-long window. The state has turned that requirement into a statewide policy this year as part of its newfound emphasis on test security.

Last month, in the shadow of testing scandals that have erupted around the country, the New York State Education Department announced it was creating an office to focus solely on preventing and investigating instances of test fraud. Until now, districts had been responsible for looking into local allegations, and no comprehensive system has existed to examine scores for suspicious patterns.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.