State says most districts are ‘online ready’ for new state assessment, with Shelby County an exception

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Computers line a classroom at Aspire Hanley Elementary in Memphis as schools prepared to make the switch to online assessments for state achievement tests.

Nearly all of Tennessee’s districts have the networks and devices necessary for the first round of all-online standardized tests at the end of the school year, according to a report released Friday by the Tennessee Department of Education.

However, some districts, including Shelby County Schools, are in a race against time and limited funds to obtain enough computers for the end-of-year tests, which begin in February in most schools.

Following on the heels of dozens of states nationwide, Tennessee will transition entirely to online tests next spring with the advent of the Common Core-aligned TNReady. Aiming to avoiding the technology bugs that have derailed other states’ tests, the Department of Education is working with districts to ensure they have the necessary bandwith and computers.

More than 99 percent of schools reported their networks were ready to give the test online, up from spring 2014, when about 88 percent of schools reported their networks met the recommendations for online testing, according to the department’s report. Ten percent of schools reported they still do not have the recommended number of computers or tablets. The state recommends districts have three devices per student, but considers six adequate.

No districts have requested to give the test with paper and pencil.

Districts largely funded the technology upgrades themselves.

Two years ago, Gov. Bill Haslam allotted $51 million for districts to prepare for the online PARCC test, which the legislature postponed. But the money didn’t go very far when divided among more than 140 districts, said Fred Carr, chief operating officer for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Upgrades cost more than $10 million in Nashville alone, he said. Nashville funded its computer purchases and high-speed Internet largely through money from the Nashville Metro Council. They were able to have the recommended ratio of devices to students by the end of 2013, Carr said.

“We’ve been infrastructure-planning for five or six years,” Carr said. “We didn’t wait until the last minute.”

The state’s report says Metro Nashville has only 90 percent of the necessary devices, but Carr says it has 100 percent.

Shelby County Schools — the state’s largest district and with a concentration of poor students far above the state average — is the third least prepared with just 62 percent of the devices it ultimately will need, according to the state data. The district filed a lawsuit earlier this week charging that the state doesn’t provide adequate funding for the county’s schools. The suit specifically cites a lack of funds for “technological infrastructure to support the State’s online testing mandate.”

Shelby County officials said the district had ordered more computers, which should arrive to schools in mid-October, but could not answer other questions about the district’s readiness for online testing.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in August that districts should seek computers not just to be ready for the new state tests but because students need computer skills.

“We believe locals do need to pay very close attention to investing in technology and supporting what students will do once they graduate,” McQueen said.

All districts, including Shelby County Schools, have been preparing for online tests for at least two years. The state originally was supposed to transition to the online PARCC test this spring, and social studies and writing pilot tests the past two years were also online.

To avoid network freezes when hundreds or thousands of students log on to take tests at the same time, the state has given schools flexibility in designing their testing schedules. The Department of Education has designated Oct. 1 as “Break MIST Day,” when all schools will log onto the server that will be used for TNReady, called MIST, to see if it overloads, so technology staff can troubleshoot problems before next spring’s tests.

Carr said Metro Nashville already has addressed some bugs that occurred during the online social studies tests. He predicts more will occur next spring. But, he said, the district is doing all it can to be ‘TNReady.’

“Obviously,  there will be things we don’t know about, but if we can fix the ones we do, we’ll have fewer big issues,” he said.

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.