Slamming the Exam

At Success Academy schools, high-octane test prep leaves nothing to chance

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

Before the state math tests began this week, the Success Academy charter school network had left nothing up to chance.

School leaders had provided teachers with color-coded agendas with precise instructions for every few minutes of test days, along with boxes of supplies that might come in handy — from pencils and tissues to extra clothes for students and deodorizing powder to sop up vomit.

Teachers had been taught the proper way to hand out tissues during the test (pass the student a new sheet first, then use a second sheet to grab the used tissue). They knew to set their classroom temperatures to between 66 and 70 degrees, and to call each student’s family every evening before a test to remind them of the next morning’s exam.

On test days, some teachers would take Success-funded cabs to pick up chronically late students (“Taxi Scholars,” as the agendas refer to them). Outside auditors, who had already observed the network’s practice tests, would monitor the real exams to safeguard against charges of test-rigging.

But students were perhaps the most prepared of all. They had spent weeks taking practice tests modeled off the actual state exams. They starred in test “dress rehearsals,” where exact testing conditions were simulated. Some had even practiced tearing perforated reference sheets out of mock test booklets.

If history is any guide, the preparation will pay off. Last year, Success students’ pass rates on the new and much harder state exams beat those of every other city charter school network and far surpassed the city and state averages.

Success says test prep is a minor factor in its students’ remarkable scores. More important, it insists, are the network’s curriculum, teacher training, and longer school days.

“No amount of test preparation will enable a child to do well on these challenging tests without extremely high-quality instruction,” Success CEO Eva Moskowitz said in a statement.

Success is the city’s largest and most polarizing charter school network, and its high test scores have been the subject of passionate debate. Critics have said the network has boosted its scores by “counseling out” hard-to-teach students (a charge Success denies) and by not replacing many students who leave.

What’s less debatable is that outstanding test scores are crucial for Success Academy. They have enabled the network to attract an army of well-heeled, results-oriented donors. And recently they bolstered the network’s case when it appealed to lawmakers for support after the city blocked some Success schools from moving into public buildings.

To ensure it achieves those results, Success invests an extraordinary amount of time and resources into preparing students for the state exams, according to interviews and conversations with current teachers, parents, and students from several Success schools, as well as a review of internal Success documents.

Many of those interviewed said the work leading up to the test was rigorous and conceptual, a far cry from rote “drill-and-kill” prep, and a valuable use of school time considering the high stakes attached to the exams.

“I’m all for it,” said Maria Torres, who drives her daughter from Staten Island to a Success school in Harlem each day. “The more instruction they get, the more prepared and confident they are.”

But others said the intensive test preparation distorts students’ view of the purpose of education and detracts from learning not directly related to the exams.

“I think it’s important that if they’re going to be tested on something, they feel prepared to do it,” said one teacher who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But I don’t think it needs to come at the expense of authentic learning, which is what’s happening.”

At Success, students encounter tasks modeled off those on state tests as early as the fall, when they are given network-produced packets with reading passages and questions during sessions called “Close Reading Mastery.” Around winter break, they take full practice tests. By March, students answer test-inspired questions every morning, and teachers report their daily scores to the network.

In the weeks leading up to the exams, test preparation dominates the school day.

Before the English tests, that means eight reading passages with questions every day at one school. In the lead-up to the math tests, another school’s schedule showed students taking a two-hour practice test in the morning and another two-hour practice test in the afternoon, with some students scheduled to spend recess going over wrong answers.

Teachers said they lose their own prep periods during these weeks and students miss out on academics — from reading about current events to studying history — that are not assessed by the state exams. To pack in more test prep, the network holds Saturday sessions and put off spring break until after the math exams. In the afternoons after the tests this week, students will solve practice problems modeled after the next day’s exams.

Some teachers and parents said all this preparation builds up students’ work ethic and tenacity, but others worried that it skews their sense of what it means to be successful.

“Their self worth is all tied to their performance on this test,” a teacher said.

The network goes to great lengths to keep students happy as they are chipping away at all this work.

Teachers receive boxes of prizes — basketballs, bracelets, magnets, puzzles, socks — to reward students based on their effort and scores on the daily practice tests. Other students earned Popeyes chicken, pizza, or trips to the park. One school paid a street vendor to pass out ice cream to students after last Saturday’s “Slam the Exam” prep session.

Students receive daily reports with their practice-test results. Those who achieve top scores have their headshots posted on a hallway bulletin board, called the “3s and 4s Club,” in one school. But low-scoring students also see their results posted in school hallways. Those students, along with ones who made careless mistakes or were not invested in the practice tests, miss recess to attend extra work sessions, called “Effort Academy” or “Revision Academy.”

“If there’s noticeable areas for improvement, then we work on it,” said one teacher. “Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to improve.”

Success also finds ways to keep teachers invested.

The network pays for catered lunches for staff during the weeks of test preparation and issued every teacher new Converse sneakers. (The shoes come in handy on test days, since Success teachers are required to wear soft-soled shoes to reduce noise.)

More galvanizing are the daily, network-wide emails that rank teachers by name based on the percentage of their students who passed that morning’s practice tests. Multiple teachers said they were motivated by the rankings — “You want to have your name on the top of that list,” said one — and noted that top-ranked teachers share tips and materials.

Those rankings may carry consequences: A bottom-ranked teacher was told she is being demoted from a lead to an assistant teacher, according to two teachers who learned of the move. They find the ranking system demoralizing.

“I constantly feel criticized and under pressure,” one said.

Kevin Heffel, Success Academy’s instructional chief, said in a statement that the network believes educators should be held accountable for “preparing our scholars to succeed,” and that it provides teachers “extensive professional development and support to help them meet this goal.”

Heffel added that Success considers test preparation a matter of equity.

“Minority children have historically been denied educational opportunities because they haven’t been adequately prepared for standardized testing,” he said. “We owe it to our kids to make sure they’re ready.”

Wake up to a comprehensive round-up of New York City education news by signing up for our Rise & Shine newsletter here.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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