security blanket

State's erasure analysis pilot included all tests taken last year

An effort to root out possible cheating that the State Education Department billed as stopgap actually included every single test that elementary and middle school students in New York took last year.

But the state is not yet saying how many red flags turned up when three million students’ answer sheets were scrutinized using a test security procedure known as “erasure analysis.”

For the last two years, under increasing pressure to show that the state’s test scores are meaningful, state education officials have asked the legislature for funding to carry out erasure analysis on students’ answer sheets. The process detects how often answers have been switched from wrong to right, a key barometer of cheating. Erasure analysis helped uncover cheating in other districts, including Atlanta, where 35 educators were recently indicted for their roles in a sweeping cheating scandal.

But in both years, legislators turned down the education officials’ requests. Last year, after legislators rejected a $1 million request to perform erasure analysis on 10 percent of tests, the officials said they would free up funds from their budget for limited testing.

“We’re still going through our process to determine how many and how much,” an education department spokesman said in June.

In the end, state officials said, the department was able to conduct erasure analysis on a far larger scale — and for far lower a price — than they had estimated. Instead of testing a fraction of exams, the department had every single math and reading test scanned for wrong-to-right erasures. Yet instead of spending $10 million, the price tag the department originally gave legislators for comprehensive erasure analysis, the costs were “minimal,” a department spokesman said.

“We were able to devise a more cost-effective process and, as a result, the actual pilot in the 2011-12 school year was appreciably [larger] than was originally proposed,” the spokesman, Jonathan Burman, said in an email.

This year, the department will have every high school Regents exam analyzed, Burman said. That’s on top of the three million elementary and middle school reading and math tests that students will take starting next week.

The analyses are done by 17 regional scanning centers around the state when they process and collect test score data sent to them by schools. The state instructed the centers to install erasure analysis software of their choice onto their scanning computers.

Burman said the state pays the scanning centers to crunch test results, which are used to assess students, teachers, schools, and districts. He said he could not say how much the state spent across the 17 centers, but the most expensive contract, with the Central New York Regional Information Center, is for $400,000. According to the state comptroller, that contract is to “create [an] early detection system to quickly and accurately detect test fraud incidents” and was approved last month.

The scanning centers are only able to detect erasures, and officials said they still want to hire outside vendors who can examine the tests more thoroughly. Additional analysis can show other kinds of suspicious data, including irregular spikes from one year to the next, and unlikely clusters of high scores in one class or one school.

The state has conducted erasure analysis in the past. From 2008 to 2011, the state pulled a sample of high school Regents exams and had them checked for erasures. Sixty-two schools were flagged for possible cheating — 48 in New York City — but just six schools were investigated. The renewed focus on the procedure is part of a broader expansion of test security efforts at the state level.

Burman said the state would ultimately release results from the 2012 erasure analysis to the public. Those results are “still being confirmed and analyzed” now, he said.

“We obviously don’t want to unfairly suggest impropriety on the part of any school, so we have to make certain that the results are valid and reliable before anything is released,” Burman said.

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.