stacking up

A few states, but not N.Y., see big gains on 'nation's report card'

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New York’s fourth grade reading scores didn’t see significant changes from 2011.

In a year when a few states posted across-the-board gains, New York State saw limited progress on the test known as “the nation’s report card,” according to new data released today about the 2013 tests.

Only fourth-grade math scores saw a statistically significant increase on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an assessment given to fourth- and eighth-graders across the country every two years. New York students’ scores in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, and eighth-grade math showed no significant changes from 2011.

That’s a better result than the scores two years ago, when New York was one of just two states to post significant declines. (New York City’s scores outpaced the rest of the state slightly.)

Across the country, Tennessee, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia saw the biggest gains across both grades and subjects, though scores for Washington, D.C. especially still rank among the nation’s lowest.

“You’d like to see some steady improvement across subjects, though generally seeing an increase in all subject-grade combinations is very rare,” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP. “It’s hard to move the needle on all four grades and subjects unless you’re really doing something.”

But he cautioned that the numbers themselves don’t point to specific successes. “There will be a flurry of people taking credit for their favorite policy and blaming their least favorite policy for why their scores didn’t go up,” he said.

Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested that Tennessee and D.C. in particular had succeeded because of their “laser-like focus on teacher effectiveness” and rapid shift to new standards known as the Common Core. Duncan made adopting common standards and new teacher evaluations that weigh student performance a requirement for winning federal Race to the Top funds in 2010. Tennessee was one of the earliest winners, and D.C. joined New York in a second pool of grant recipients.

Duncan also emphasized that none of the first eight states to adopt Common Core standards saw statistically significant score decreases between 2009 and 2013 — though many of those states didn’t see see increases, either.

He attributed the variations among states to what he called “extraordinary leadership” at the state level, from officials who have “done some very difficult and courageous work” raising standards. He added, “Where people are more timid, you’re seeing less progress.”

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, said the NAEP results validate the pace of change in Tennessee and D.C.

“That’s why this is so significant — there was huge pushback, particularly from current school personnel who liked the way things were going,” Hanushek said. “You wouldn’t want to get into a fight if it had no impact. But in fact — the improved performance is something that they should be proud about.”

Hanushek said the overall picture remained discouraging, with scores across the country improving less quickly than they have in the past.

Two years ago, New York State Education Commissioner John King said New York’s NAEP scores would increase once planned policy changes went into effect. The state’s first round of Common Core-aligned tests was last spring, after the most recent NAEP administration. And teachers in most of the state only recently got their first ratings that consider student performance; teachers in New York City won’t be evaluated that way until after this year.

“The scores on this NAEP report underscore a tough but necessary truth: Our students are not where they should be,” King said in 2011. “The reforms we’re implementing will help get them there.”

Some of the national results bucked recent trends. In the past, much of the score increases have been attributed to the lowest-performing students catching up with their peers. This year, Buckley noted that a big chunk of states’ gains came from high-performing students pulling further ahead. Gains have also been more common historically at the fourth grade level, but this year it was eighth-grade reading that improved most.

For years, NAEP has been the only way to compare student performance across states with vastly different standards for their own tests. But Buckley argued that the tests will remain relevant even as more states align their tests to common standards, given how many variations remain and the importance of NAEP’s long-term data collection.

“If everything is changing, we’re going to be the only time series people can use to make comparisons,” Buckley said.

New York City’s local results will come out in December along with data from other urban school districts. In the past, the city’s state test score gains have outpaced the state’s, but it would be hard for NAEP scores statewide to shift one way if the city’s scores moved the other way, given the city’s population.

Jaclyn Zubrzycki contributed reporting.

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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.