2015 state tests

New York City scores on state tests inch up as opt-out movement triples

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post

New York City’s scores on state tests continued to inch up in 2015, though the number of students refusing to sit for the tests this year tripled.

Just over 35 percent of city students in grades three through eight passed the math exams, up one point over last year. In English, just over 30 percent of students passed, a two-point increase over last year that brought the city closer than ever to the state average, according to figures released Wednesday.

“For the second straight year and for the first year fully on our watch, New York City’s children have raised up their test scores in both math and English,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The state also released final tallies of the number of students who opted out of the tests, after that movement saw dramatic growth over the last year. Twenty percent of eligible students statewide opted out of the tests, following waves of parent protests in many districts and the encouragement of the state teacher’s union.

In the city, the numbers were smaller. Only 1.8 percent of test-takers boycotted the math tests and 1.4 percent sat out the English tests — a tiny fraction of students, but a more than threefold increase over 2014’s percentage and a major increase over the roughly 350 students who opted out in 2013.

The city’s modest test-score gains were shared by every racial and ethnic group, though not every grade. Third, fourth, and eighth graders saw very slight declines in math scores, while all grade levels saw English scores rise. Still, fewer than one in five Hispanic and black students passed the exams, while more than half of white and Asian students did. The gaps were even wider for students who are still learning English.

[See what city schools saw the biggest gains and dips here.]

Still, the results were good news for Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña. 2015 was their first full school year at the helm of the city school system, and the third year since officials adjusted the tests to align with the Common Core standards, which sent scores tumbling in 2013. Earlier this year, city officials lost their fight with state lawmakers

“My guess is that the mayor and chancellor are breathing a sigh of relief, considering the kind of siege they’re under form some media and state policymakers,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of education and sociology at Teachers College.

The state’s proficiency rates remain higher than New York City’s, though the city has nearly closed that gap in recent years.

Across the state, 38.1 percent of test-takers met the state’s proficiency bar in math this year, up from 36.2 percent last year. In English, 31.3 percent earned a proficient score, up from 30.6 percent last year, which state officials called “modest progress.”

Officials also released detailed demographic information about the students across the state who sat out the tests. Those students were more likely to be white, from wealthier districts, and were more likely not to have passed last year’s test, according to the state education department. In New York City, 39 percent of the students who opted out of the tests did not earn a passing score in 2014, the department said.

The fact that so many of the boycotting students did not pass last year’s tests suggests that this year’s statewide results could be slanted in some way. The large number of opt-outs in the state, but relatively few in the city, could also muddy city-state comparisons.

“There is no question that when you have approximately 20 percent of students not take the tests, the results would have variation based on that,” Elia said.

The city’s charter schools continued to outdo citywide proficiency rates in math, but lag in English. Proficiency rates at charter schools increased from 28 percent to 29.3 percent in English, and from 43.9 percent to 44.2 percent in math. Those rates have improved at a slower rate than the district-school averages.

See more city-specific data here, and the statewide data here.

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 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