New Tests

Common Core rollout reaches Regents exams, but older tests remain

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Revamping algebra instruction will take teacher training, curriculum changes, and setting up students early on to grasp more advanced concepts.

Students are sitting for the first-ever Regents exams tied to the new Common Core state standards on Tuesday, continuing a turbulent rollout of the Common Core standards that sparked new resistance last year after younger students faced tougher tests.

The new Common Core-aligned Algebra I Regents exam has provoked less dread than the grades 3-8 tests did, since only some students are required to sit for the test and students can retake it. Also, while the new test is being phased in this year, the state is allowing students to take the old algebra Regents exam as well and keep whichever score is highest.

Still, preparing students to take two different Regents tests in the same subject has challenged some algebra teachers, who say they are unsure about what to expect on the new exams.

“We’re feeling a bit anxious,” said Marisa Laks, an algebra and geometry teacher at the Global Learning Collaborative on the Upper West Side. “We really don’t know what this assessment is going to be like.”

Only students who first enrolled in Algebra I this year are required to take Tuesday’s test, which is designed to be more demanding, with more multi-step problems based on real-world scenarios. Students typically take Algebra I in ninth grade, though some take the course and the test in middle school. During this transitional year, those students can also take the old test and keep the higher score.

Common Core-aligned Algebra I course leaves out some topics that are included in courses tied to the old standards, such as probability and trigonometry. Some algebra teachers said they plan to deal with the discrepancy by covering those missing topics between the Common Core test on Tuesday and the old Algebra I exam, which will be given on June 20.

Ken Wagner, the state education department associate commissioner who oversees testing, acknowledged that the situation is not ideal.

“It puts teachers in an awkward situation, as well as students,” he said, though he added that the state only made the old test available this year to act as a safety net for students.

Some teachers have also complained that, despite the availability of some sample questions on the state website, they are unsure what to expect from Tuesday’s tests. Wagner argued that the state had been “very transparent” about the new exams, posting webinars and test guides in addition to the sample problems.

“People should have a pretty good sense of what’s going to be on [the test],” he said.

The state is also rolling out a new Common Core-aligned English Regents exam on Tuesday, which will eventually replace the current test.

This year’s freshmen will be the first that must take the new test, but since the English exam is designed to be taken at the end of 11th grade, no students are required to take the new test until 2016. However, older students that have taken English classes tied to the new standards have the option of taking the new test this year.

As in the past, this year’s freshmen will have to pass two social studies and one science Regents exam in order to graduate. But this group is the first that will also have to pass a Common Core-connected Regents exam in English and one in either Algebra I, Geometry, or Algebra II, which will be rolled out in 2015 and 2016. (Students who take the new geometry test next year will have the option of taking the old one too.)

As before, students must score at least a 65 out of 100 on the new exams to pass. The state has not yet set the number of points that students must earn on the test to obtain a 65. But state officials have said they expect a similar percentage of students to pass the new tests as the old ones.

By 2022, the state will raise the score that students have to earn on the Common Core Regents in order to graduate. The state has not yet set that score. It is considering whether to gradually raise the pass score in the years leading up to 2022, an option that it will seek public feedback on later this year.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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

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