take your time

Students will not face time limits on this year’s state tests, Elia says

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at an education forum last year.

Students will be given as much time as they need to complete the state exams this spring, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told lawmakers Wednesday, one of several “major changes” she said are coming to the annual tests.

The department is also considering making the tests shorter and involving teachers more heavily in reviewing the questions, Elia said during an education hearing in Albany. The adjustments come after thousands of students boycotted last year’s tests, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a testing task force that called for a complete overhaul of the state’s learning standards and assessments.

One of that group’s recommendations was for the state to consider untimed exams, noting that parents and teachers say the time limits provoke undue anxiety in students.

“Part of the stresses that we have on kids is that they were timed, and particularly younger children,” Elia said Wednesday. “So if they are working productively then they will be able to continue the assessment.”

In New York, students in grades three to eight take the federally mandated tests in April, with the English and math exams each spread out over three days. Elia told lawmakers at one point that “next year, if possible, we will shorten the days,” though she later made clear that this year’s tests will still take place over a total of six days.

Students are currently given 60 to 90 minutes to complete each day’s test, depending on the subject and the grade level. In recent years, the state has reduced the amount of time each test is designed to last.

State education spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement Wednesday evening that Elia is “moving forward with a plan to allow students who are ‘productively working’ to complete their exams.” The department is working on a guidance document that is will share with schools “shortly,” he added.

New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said Wednesday that she would “totally applaud” the elimination of time limits, which could help alleviate parents’ concerns that students lack “stamina” to finish tests.

“I think that’d be great,” she told reporters after her testimony in Albany. “I would strongly support it.”

The state teachers union, which actively supported the test boycott, was less enthusiastic about the time change.

“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn said in a statement, adding that the tests and learning standards need to be overhauled.

Since the state rolled out new tests in 2013 to match the more rigorous Common Core standards, many parents and educators have complained that students have struggled to complete them within the allotted time. That is especially true for the English exams, where students are expected to repeatedly return to given passages to answer detailed questions.

“We have spent the year teaching students to be careful, thoughtful, deep thinkers,” a fourth-grade teacher wrote in an online forum about the 2014 reading tests. “Today the objective was speed.”

A state education department fact sheet says that students who need extra time are given it; however, a manual for administrators suggests that extra time is reserved for English learners or students with disabilities. The fact sheet also says that a 2013 analysis by the department found that the amount of time students were given to complete the tests did not impact their scores.

Elia also said Wednesday that the state is reviewing questions to make sure they are age-appropriate.

Parents opted their children out of state test in record numbers last year, in part to protest the Common Core standards and a new law that upped the weight of state tests in teacher evaluations.

Responding to the backlash, Cuomo convened a Common Core task force that recommended a number of changes assessments, including exploring whether students should have unlimited time on 3-8 ELA and math assessments. Elia served on the task force and presented the task force’s findings to the Board of Regents in December.

This is not the first time a high-ranking education official has floated the idea of untimed tests. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told Politico New York last spring that she considered the idea, but abandoned it due to opposition from unnamed advocates.

On Wednesday, Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino asked Elia to assure parents that she will reduce testing.

“When I say we’re going to do something,” she responded, “we’re going to do it.”

defensor escolar

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.