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.”

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