Rounding a corner

After two rocky weeks, Tennessee testing settles down for the homestretch

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Students and teachers tackling state exams this week relished a stretch of normalcy, enjoying several days in a row without significant slowdowns or shutdowns in computerized testing.

With a week of TNReady testing to go and about 70 percent of exams complete, testing company Questar permanently disabled a function believed to have interrupted Tennessee’s assessment on Monday, the latest in a string of technical problems that have plagued schools this spring.

The newest culprit — a tool that allowed text to be turned into speech for students needing audible assistance — was contributing to problems logging in and submitting tests, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

And regardless of how many students were using the tool in individual schools, the issue affected districts statewide, she added.

“We believe that we would not be able to turn this feature back on without significantly risking further disruption and widespread slowdowns as students log on and submit their exams,” Gast wrote superintendents Tuesday evening in an email update.

As a result, special education students who previously used the text-to-speech feature must have the TNReady text read aloud to them by a teacher or proctor — similar to how their younger counterparts take the test with pencil and paper.

About 1 percent of Tennessee students receive read-aloud instructions as part of their special education plans, which means that schools have had to rearrange their schedules and staffing to accommodate the sudden change.

Tennessee reintroduced statewide computerized testing this school year after its failed rollout in 2016. However, this time around, the state only required online testing for high school students. Some districts opted to go digital for students in middle grades as well.

Since testing began on April 16, high schoolers have experienced significant disruptions online on at least half of the testing days, with causes ranging from a reported cyber attack to the severing of a main fiber optic cable by a dump truck in East Tennessee.

Testing went better this Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Gast, adding that “our helpline has been very quiet,” despite a high volume of testing.

Online testing officially extends through May 9, but many districts already have submitted their last tests to Questar. Paper-and-pencil testing for elementary-age students ends on Friday, and those materials will be picked up and transported to Questar for scoring.

The scores won’t count for much, though, due to emergency legislation approved last month in response to concerns about the validity and reliability of the results. Criticizing the frequent interruptions, the legislature directed that “no adverse action may be taken” against any student, teacher, school, or district based on scores this school year.

The state Department of Education has been working ever since to develop guidelines on how TNReady will play into Tennessee’s accountability systems this year.

“We are striving to be as thoughtful, collaborative, and efficient as possible as we work on this,” Gast said. “The new law impacts many areas and our goal is to implement it as written while honoring the spirit in which it was passed.”

Fixing Special Education

How will Chicago repair the harm from special-education neglect?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Laurel Henson, at the podium, spoke at a press conference in Chicago on Nov. 12, 2018, about her 2-year struggle to get a school nurse on staff to help her son, who suffers from seizures.

Illinois may be forcing Chicago Public Schools to repair its broken special education program, but the ambitious effort still begs a critical question: What happens to hundreds of Chicago children who were harmed by the district refusing them services that would  help them learn?

Neither the state nor the school district is saying yet, even as advocates for students in special education have pressed for answers.

Those children include an unnamed third-grader trapped by a tactic the district apparently used to avoid offering services required by federal law.

The child can’t read the word cat or dog, health-legal advocate Barbara Cohen said, but his teacher didn’t believe in giving low grades. So the third grader received a B in English. Then, she told the State Board of Education on Friday, when the child’s mother sought an evaluation for special education services, school officials denied the request based on his having a good grade.

Laura Boedeker, the state’s monitor overseeing special-education reforms, acknowledged that schools vary in understanding the laws and best practices. Her job, she said, “is to have those discussions and explain what good practices look like.”

That’s not likely to satisfy parents and advocates pushing for quicker action that would help families like the third-grader’s. On Friday, they pressed authorities like Boedeker, who previously served as the district’s in-house attorney.

But with a staff of just three, including herself, it’s not clear how fast Boedeker can move. In four-and-a-half months on the job, she’s only visited 10 of the district’s 600-plus schools.

“Do you have enough boots on the ground, enough help to do this work at the rate you need to do it?” asked Illinois State Board of Education member Susie Morrison.

“We could have an army and not have enough boots on the ground,” said Stephanie Jones, the board’s general counsel. “What we need more than anything is eyes and ears that tell us what is going on so we can take action. Unless we can put an ISBE employee in every school, which is unrealistic, we need parents and teachers and staff members to tell us what is going on.”

Recognizing the lag in responding to parents, the state board is weighing whether to extend the one-year deadline for filing complaints about denied or improper services.

It’s possible, Jones said, that “we can wave this until we have a system of corrective action in place.”

Neither the state nor district have answered questions like: How many students could be eligible? When exactly will the system go into effect? And what roles should advocates and schools play?

Boedeker said that federal officials have insisted that teams who put together students’ individualized education programs be involved in the remedy, because “they’re the ones on the front lines with these students.” 

But lawyer Matt Cohen said he and other advocates want a process that involves more people than the IEP team.

A child who, for example, went without a one-on-one aide for many months or who didn’t get placed in therapeutic day school when needed “might have had a profound loss,” Cohen said.

How the district will compensate that family is the question.  

“They may need more than just a few hours of tutoring to make up for that, they may need months and months of additional services and a specialized process to help them catch up,” Cohen said. “We’re encouraging families whose kids were hurt to bring their complaints to the state, and to seek action to get their individual child’s needs met.”

Jones said that board officials and the school district, federal government and special education advocates are discussing school guidelines for identifying students harmed, notifying their families, assessing damages and offering remedies.

About half a year has passed since a state probe found the school district violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services — like aides, therapy, outside placement and busing — to students in what the district calls its Diverse Learners Program.

The state board’s Jones and Boedeker tried to placate critics by preaching patience.

“From the outside looking in it looks really slow,” Jones said, “but I think we’ve accomplished a great deal in the time we have had.”

Patience doesn’t sit well with parents desperately worried about their children.

Laurel Henson, whose son suffers from seizures, said she’s been pushing to get a nurse on staff at Smyser Elementary for two years, but has encountered “delays and excuses.” On Nov. 1, the school finally granted a meeting to discuss an IEP, she said.

“In that time, he’s had a significant increase in seizures at his school causing fatigue, aggression and bed wetting during the night,” she said. Despite her hopes for the monitor, “nothing has improved for my son and it now feels like neither CPS nor the state are accountable for ensuring students like my son have a free and appropriate education.”

ethnic studies

50 years in, why the fight for Mexican-American studies in schools is still in its early stages

PHOTO: Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Sonia Salazar, a college student, joins over 1,000 people to commemorate the historic East LA student walkouts of 1968 earlier this year. Mexican-American Studies courses are gaining traction now in K-12 schools after years of growth in higher education, a panel concluded during a recent civil rights conference in San Antonio.

Thirteen-year-old Alejandra Del Bosque knows not everyone gets to take a class like hers.

In it, she’s learned about Mexican-American students who staged walkouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to protest the lack of resources available to their schools. She’s also learned how her state’s school funding system has still been deemed inadequate in recent court rulings.

“There was so much to learn about my heritage that I didn’t know,” Del Bosque said. “But from what I understand, it’s a unique class that’s not everywhere. For me, as a Mexican-American, it’s exciting.”

Her experience remains relatively rare. Fifty years after televised civil rights hearings galvanized the Chicano movement, academics and activists agree that the push for Mexican-American studies still lacks basic resources. And though interest is increasing, in part thanks to President Trump, growth has been slow — especially in K-12 schools, since college-level programs have traditionally gotten more attention.

“That was a big mistake we made,” Juan Tejeda, a professor at Palo Alto College, said last week. “There should have always been a focus on developing culturally relevant curriculum from pre-K through 12.”

He spoke at an event commemorating the 1968 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearings on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, where he and others took stock of the movement that emerged in the decades since to better engage Latino students. (Of the 58 million Latinos in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are of Mexican descent, and most were born in the U.S.)

That’s long been a challenge for schools, especially as most educators are white. Some research has suggested that when students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, test scores and graduation rates rise. Another study found that taking an ethnic studies course helped reduce dropout rates.

Not many students have access to those courses, though. There’s no solid national data on how many school districts have some form of Mexican-American studies in their schools. California is understood to have taken the lead, while Tejeda estimated that only about 38 of more than 1,000 Texas districts have started a program.

That’s partly due to ongoing political opposition.

Arizona’s ban on teaching Mexican-American studies back in 2010 was a wake-up call for the movement, Tejeda said. (Last year, a federal court ruled that the state’s move was “racist and unconstitutional,” but Tucson hasn’t reinstated its program yet.)

Over the last decade, Mexican-American professors built a network that evolved into a group called Somos MAS. The group began a push for a standard high school elective course in Texas.

After four years of lobbying, the Texas board of education approved the course last year. Battles have also turned toward materials: When the book to be used in schools for Mexican-American studies was released in 2016, it was described by many Chicano scholars as racist for its portrayal of Mexican-Americans as lazy and un-American. That book was later thrown out, as was another the board didn’t like in 2017. Then came a debate over the course’s name, which just ended in September.

Those fights were about more than details – they were about granting the topic legitimacy, and about making it easy for teachers to introduce the material, said Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“There were already some teachers here or there taking upon themselves to incorporate the studies into the schools, but it was sporadic, and accurate materials weren’t always easy to find,” Saldaña said. “Approving a course that can be aligned with state standards is ideal and would allow for the programs to be more streamlined.”

Another key challenge: in many cases, limited student interest. At the college level, Our Lady of The Lake University — the host of the hearings in 1968 and the conference last week — considered nixing its Mexican-American studies program in 2012 because of the small number of participating students. It was later saved.

“That also reminded us that if we don’t fight to keep these programs, they will be lost,” Tejeda said. “But what we needed to do was focus on getting students interested while they are younger.”

Saldaña says student interest has grown more recently thanks to political rhetoric around immigration, specifically from President Donald Trump. Trump has disparaged Mexican immigrants, questioned the impartiality of a Mexican-American judge, and made wanting to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border the center of many political speeches.

“Between what we are seeing with the current administration in office, and the battle here on the ground over the course we have been fighting for, students are getting a real-time lesson,” Saldaña said.

Somos MAS now hosts an annual summit for K-12 educators to come learn about Mexican-American Studies and how to integrate lessons into their classrooms. The University of Texas at San Antonio also offers a summer training institute that has drawn nearly 100 teachers at its most recent gathering.

It’s not nearly enough, the panelists said. “What needs to happen next is a focus on building infrastructure: such as more teacher training opportunities on how to incorporate MAS in their classrooms; a teacher certificate in Mexican-American Studies, and more advanced degrees in ethnic studies so students see a future in this field of work,” Saldaña said.

Students from KIPP Camino Academy. (Photo by Francisco Vara-Orta)

One school that has moved ahead with Mexican-American studies course is KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. After a pilot program two years ago, the class is now an elective for seventh- and eighth-graders.

On Friday, 20 of the KIPP students watched the discussion on the 50-year fight to get Mexican-American studies in their schools with their instructor, JoAnn Trujillo.

“Some of these kids have driven by the university here and never have gotten to step foot on its grounds,” Trujillo said. “So us being here — in part because of the program, and seeing how Mexican-American studies is something special that had to be fought for many years — will plant seeds about going to college and feeling more self-worth.”