Testing matters

For the first time, Tennessee school voucher advocates are pushing for TNReady in private schools. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown says that concerns about the cost of vouchers are overblown. Kelsey has been a passionate defender of vouchers throughout his legislative career.

If Tennessee private schools want to take advantage of public money that could soon be flowing their way, they might have to become more like public schools — especially at testing time.

After years of near-misses, the state appears poised to approve a voucher program that would allow public funding to be used to pay private school tuition.

To make this happen after years of disappointments, lawmakers who want vouchers are making a few compromises. One is to limit the program to Memphis. Another is to require students who receive vouchers to take the state’s standardized test, TNReady.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, the architect of Tennessee’s voucher bill, said he would prefer requiring students who use vouchers to take nationally normed tests, like they do in Florida and several other states with voucher programs.

But he said he understands why policymakers want to make “apple to apple” comparisons between public schools and private schools accepting government dollars. “If that gives policymakers greater comfort to vote for the bill, then I am all for that,” said the Germantown Republican.

Requiring students who use vouchers to take TNReady would put Tennessee in good company. Of states with the largest school voucher programs, at least three — Wisconsin, Louisiana and Indiana — require students who use vouchers take their state tests. (Indiana actually requires all students at schools that accept vouchers to take the exams, then uses the scores to determine whether the schools should continue to get state funding.)

But many voucher advocates say state testing requirements undermine the idea of an education marketplace where families choose the school that best meets their needs.

Part of what makes private schools different is that they teach to different standards, cover different content, and measure learning in different ways, says Patrick Wolf, a voucher proponent and professor at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

“Many parents are attracted to them for that reason,” he said. “If you’re a student in a private school who takes a public school test and you score lower, you really won’t know if that’s because the private school curriculum is different, or because the private school is less effective in delivering content.”

A testing requirement is likely to dissuade at least some Memphis schools from accepting vouchers, according to lobbyists for the state’s Catholic schools.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test,”  said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

But at least nine private in the city schools say that having to administer TNReady won’t turn them off.

The Jubilee Catholic schools are in primarily low-income areas of Memphis, and many of their seats would likely be filled by students using vouchers if this year’s legislation passes.

Kristi Baird, the interim head of the Jubilee Schools, said Tennessee’s tests didn’t seem like a big jump from the standardized tests students at her schools already take. “We already take a nationally normed assessment … so we’re confident our students’ state test results would demonstrate growth and progress,” she wrote in an email.

Amid concerns that vouchers will hurt student performance, especially in light of recent research suggesting that that has happened elsewhere, Tennesseans say having an accountability measure is essential to making sure the state funds are spent wisely.

“Publicly-funded K-12 students should take the same TN tests,” tweeted Marc Hill, the chief policy officer at Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

“Testing, public reporting & accountability for private schools must be essential components of any voucher plan in TN,” tweeted Gini Pupo-Walker, the senior director of education policy at Conexion Americas.


forward and back

Four takeaways from a new report on the status of Colorado’s children

Children on floor with building blocks. (Image Source | Getty Images)

Teen pregnancies are way down in Colorado. Teen suicides are alarmingly high. More of the state’s kids are attending full-day kindergarten than ever before, but half of them start school without the skills they need.

These are a few of the findings from the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report released today by the advocacy group Colorado Children’s Campaign. While the report always includes a trove of state and county-level data about child well-being, this year’s version — the 25th anniversary edition — touches timely topics ranging from gun control to the state’s school funding formula.

Here are four takeaways from the 147-page report. Read it in full here.

Half of Colorado kids aren’t ready for kindergarten
KIDS COUNT highlights the results of a new state report that looks at how prepared Colorado kids are for kindergarten. The report, mandated by an ambitious 2008 school reform law and released for the first time this year, reveals that just under half of the state’s kindergarteners meet benchmarks in all six areas of kindergarten readiness, which include everything from basic math knowledge to language comprehension and motor development. About a quarter of kindergarteners meet three or fewer benchmarks. (Here’s a look at the debate over the assessments used to gather kindergarten readiness data and one county’s effort to clarify what students need to know when they start kindergarten.)

The KIDS COUNT report also spotlights racial and ethnic disparities in kindergarten readiness, revealing, for example, that 55 percent of Hispanic kindergarteners met at least five of six benchmarks compared to 73 percent of non-Hispanic kindergarteners. While the authors of the KIDS COUNT report laud the new baseline data, they note one major shortcoming: The state report doesn’t pinpoint the specific areas where kids most often fall short, limiting the public’s ability to identify trouble spots.

School funding lags and full-day kindergarten explodes
Picking up on Colorado’s perennial school funding squeeze and recent efforts to get a statewide education tax measure on the ballot, KIDS COUNT examines the state school funding landscape. It shows that in 1995, Colorado spent $402 less than the national per-pupil average with adjustments for regional cost differences. By 2014, that number had ballooned to nearly $2,700 less per student.

Even as the state’s school funding has lagged, there’s been impressive growth in its full-day kindergarten population. This year, nearly 80 percent of kindergarteners are enrolled in full-day programs, compared to 14 percent in 2001-02. Still, the state only pays part of that cost, leaving districts to make up the rest through other government funding or parent tuition dollars.

While some lawmakers routinely seek (and fail to get) full state funding for full-day kindergarten, the coming gubernatorial election could mix things up this year. At least one candidate wants to offer free full-day kindergarten to all Colorado kids.

Colorado’s youth suicide rate is alarming —  and guns figure into the equation
At a time when school shootings are fueling a push for gun control legislation in some quarters, KIDS COUNT’s authors note the prominent role that guns play in youth suicides, especially for boys. About half of males 10 to 19 who die by suicide use firearms. (In comparison, only about 20 percent of suicide deaths in girls involve firearms.)

Besides noting that suicide risk is lowest for youth who live in homes without firearms, the report says, “Evidence suggests that laws aimed at preventing children and youth from accessing firearms reduce firearm suicides among this age group.”

KIDS COUNT also raises concern about Colorado’s high youth suicide rate, which came up in the state legislature earlier this year after a high-profile suicide of a 10-year-old Aurora girl. In 2016, there were 18 suicides for every 100,000 people aged 15 to 19 in the state — higher than in all but two of the last 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in two counties: El Paso and Mesa, where teen suicide rates were 29 per 100,000 in 2016.

Teen pregnancy goal met, with a caveat
One success story highlighted in this year’s KIDS COUNT report is the sharp decline in Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate over the last two-and-a-half decades. Given the likelihood that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, the decrease is good news educationally and otherwise.

In 1991, there were 56 births per 1,000 Colorado teens. In 2016, it was down to 18 — well below the goal of 25 cited in the 1991 edition of KIDS COUNT. (The teen abortion rate has also dropped substantially in the last decade.) Despite major decreases in teen pregnancy for every racial and ethnic group, Colorado’s Hispanic teens still fall short of the 1991 goal with 30 pregnancies per 1,000 young women.

Even with huge strides across the state and nation in reducing teen pregnancy, recent cuts to a federal pregnancy prevention grant don’t bode well. One victim was the nonprofit Colorado Youth Matter, which focused on teen pregnancy prevention and sexual health. The organization, which got most of its funding from the federal grant, closed its doors at the end of December.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”