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2013's test score takeaways, starting with what didn't change

There’s no question what state and city officials want the public to remember about this year’s test scores, the first to reflect students’ performance on tests tied to the new Common Core standards: Teachers and students have their work cut out for them, and this year’s low scores are a baseline against which to measure future growth.

But beneath the buzz, and despite the fact that the scores can’t be compared directly to last year’s, there’s more to learn from the state’s data dump. Here are six things we’re still thinking about as we leave Common Core test score-week behind:

1. Everything we knew about schools’ and students’ relative performance is still true. The new tests did nothing to displace old inequities. Schools with many low-income families posted lower scores than schools with many middle-class students. Students of color still lag behind white students. Selective schools continue to blow neighborhood schools out of the water. (Eight of the 10 grades with the highest scale scores in the city were at two citywide gifted programs.) Students who don’t yet know English or who have disabilities are at a steep disadvantage.

So even though it felt like everything changed this week, and something important did, the city and state enter the new school year with many fundamental — and uncomfortable — truths intact.

2. We don’t know exactly what happened to the achievement gap, but it isn’t good. There is no one way to measure the achievement gap, the term that describes performance discrepancies between students with different characteristics. But according to multiple measures, it widened, and state officials say they plan further analysis.

Because all groups of students hit the new proficiency bar less often than in the past, fewer percentage points separate each group’s performance on the new tests. But how student groups’ proficiency rates compare to their rates on the old tests varies widely. In New York City, Asian students hit the state’s new proficiency bar 30 percent less often than last year. White students hit the new bar 32 percent less often in reading and 37 percent less often in math. Black and Hispanic students, on the other hand, hit the bar 56 percent less often in reading and roughly two thirds less often in math.

City officials said they expected the racial achievement gap to widen because a larger proportion of students whose scores were situated at “the bubble” (to borrow Jennifer Jennings’s term) between passing and failing were black and Latino. When the bar was raised, these students were the first to slip below it, even though the standards were different.

“If you’re in the bottom of the whole group and the base is moved up, more from the bottom will fall out,” Mayor Bloomberg said Wednesday at the press conference announcing the scores. “Nobody at the top’s going to fall out of it.”

State Education Commissioner John King said his hunch is that disparities between wealthy and poor districts’ scores remained “proportionally similar” as in the past. But state officials said they planned a more complex analysis that uses scale scores, which they have not released, rather than proficiency rates.

Teachers College researcher Aaron Pallas has his own methodology for analyzing the achievement gap that looks at the probability that a student in one subgroup would outperform a student in another subgroup. This year, he said, there was a 73 percent chance that a randomly chosen white or Asian student had a higher proficiency on the English exam and 77 percent chance of scoring better in math. That’s up slightly from 2012, when the numbers were 71 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

3. Charter school performance ranged just as widely as other schools’ performance. Or maybe more. Some city charter schools did very well, while others struggled mightily under the new standards. The Success Academy network had 58 percent of students pass the state’s proficiency bar in reading and 80 percent in math, while the Icahn network had some schools that were even higher-performing than that. But some other big-name networks, include KIPP and Democracy Prep, posted proficiency rates in the single digits in some of their schools. (The New York City Charter School Center’s interactive graphic about the sector’s performance shows each school’s relative performance over time.)

One possible explanation for the poor showing in some charter schools: the proliferation of “bubble kids” in the charter sector. Another possibility: that some charter schools, like some district schools, achieved their test-score results in the past by narrowly focusing their instruction on what was tested.

The charter sector certainly did not deliver the kind of results that make a continued expansion under the next mayor a mandate. But it got some good news: City charter schools far outperformed charter schools in the rest of the state.

4. The clearest winners are the mayoral candidates. Although city officials have vowed not to punish anyone because of the low scores, the scores have downsides for teachers, principals, students, Department of Education officials, and Mayor Bloomberg. Some of their biggest critics, on the other hand, have the most to gain.

“If you’re the new mayor, this couldn’t be better,” Hunter College professor Joseph Viteritti told the New York Times today. “You couldn’t ask for a better beginning.”

That’s because the scores represent not just a new baseline (as the city’s test-scores hashtag emphasized) for city students but also for Bloomberg’s successor. State officials say they expect scores to rise “incrementally” — in keeping with a widespread phenomenon that happens when standards rise — and a new mayor, if he or she is anything like the current one, can cite that upward movement as proof that his or her policies are paying off.

5. Officially, the tests weren’t too darn long, officially. After the second day of English testing ended, one persistent issue was heard on Twitter, on school listservs and in our inboxes: The tests were too damn long. One teacher estimated that as many as 40 percent of her sixth-grade students finished.

But a routine analysis of the test items, which the state conducts annually for its technical reports, showed that none of the questions had an “omit rate” higher than the average range of 3 to 5 percent, officials said this week. The omit rate is based on how often individual questions were left unanswered.

The time complaints reached the state’s highest ranks this spring, when Chancellor Merryl Tisch recalled that a student asked for more time on next year’s test. Officials suggested this week that they are likely to take the advice, despite the unremarkable omit rate. They said this week that even though data analysis didn’t bear out a higher-than-average number of questions that went unfinished, they were considering ways to allow for more time.

6. Being an immigrant is a disadvantage on tests, until it’s not anymore. Not surprisingly, students who don’t speak English struggled to pass the state exam designed to test precisely that subject. Just 3.4 percent of New York City’s English language learners passed the state’s reading tests, making them the worst-performing subgroup in the city.

It might seem unfair to require these students to take an English exam that’s been designed for native-speaking students. But federal law requires districts to give the same tests to all students who have been in the system for a year, even if they came from another country and still don’t speak the language. “It takes more than one year, usually, to learn English,” said Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky.

But there’s a flipside. Once students learn the language, which Polakow-Suransky said takes about three years on average, “you start to see their performance skyrocket,” he said.

Twenty-two percent of former English language learners passed the English exam, just four percentage points off the citywide average. Thirty-one percent passed the math exams, equally the state and city proficiency rate, compared with 11 percent of students who are still categorized as English language learners.

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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.