boycott

Small but determined band of families sitting out the state tests

A Change the Stakes flyer explaining how families can opt out of tests. (Click to enlarge)

At least a handful of the students who are supposed to sit down Tuesday morning for the first day of state testing already know that they will be absent.

That’s because a small number of parents are boycotting this year’s state tests, choosing to keep their children home or away from class out of protest against the tests’ growing importance.

Test scores have long been used to judge students’ readiness for the next grade. And for the last several years, the city has rated each school based in large part on how students perform on state tests. But this year, the test scores could end up being used to rate teachers, too, if the city adopts new teacher evaluations as mandated by state law. This year’s tests are also longer than ever: about 300 minutes for each grade, more than twice what some students spent on testing in the past.

Last year, the Grassroots Education Movement, traditionally an outlet for activist teachers, launched a campaign to draw attention to — and, ideally, lower — those stakes. The parents who are opting out of the tests are part of GEM’s “Change the Stakes” committee, which is holding a forum on high-stakes testing Tuesday evening.

Only a few parents have committed to keeping their children out of the tests, but they say they are willing to go it alone to raise awareness about the pressure that students and schools are under.

Janine Sopp said her daughter came home from second grade at Williamsburg’s P.S. 132 last year petrified of the testing that older students had undergone. The school had seen its city grade drop precipitously and needed scores to improve in order to escape sanctions.

“They were in this incredible panic mode that put them in test prep since September,” Sopp said. “The impact on the school was not just on the children who were being tested but on everyone.”

So she transferred her daughter to the Brooklyn New School, a progressive school where test scores are not emphasized. This week, Kya will be helping out in a kindergarten classroom instead of bubbling in answers on the state reading test.

“Of course I’m nervous because it’s not the status quo,” Sopp said. “But I talked to the principal and AP and they ran it past our district testing coordinator. … We’re all walking into uncharted territory so we’re all a bit apprehensive about how this will play out.”

The consequences of skipping the test can be steep. Fourth- and seventh-grade scores factor into students’ middle and high school admissions. At a panel on high-stakes testing last month at Sopp’s school, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said students who did not have scores would be judged according to a portfolio of work instead — a far more subjective measure at a critical moment.

Plus, the state requires schools to test at least 95 percent of students — and 95 percent of various subgroups, as well, such as students with disabilities or African-American students. If too few students sit for the tests, a school would not hit its required benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind, potentially triggering consequences that could culminate in closure.

In some states, such as Pennsylvania and California, a formal procedure exists for parents who wish to opt out of state testing, according to the Change the Stakes campaign. But in New York City, decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis.

Andrea Mata said there was “anxiety” and “confusion about to even go about doing it” when she told her principal that the family wouldn’t be taking part in this year’s testing. Mata’s son is in third grade at P.S./I.S. 210, a Washington Heights school that offers instruction in two languages and enrolls many Spanish-speaking students. The school can be penalized when those students score below grade level, even when the students are so new to the country that they cannot be held back because of poor performance.

“We’re less than 24 hours away and we still don’t know whether he will attend school [or] if other arrangements will be made for him,” said Mata, who joined Change the Stakes after hearing a GEM member describe the campaign on the radio last year. ‘There’s not really any clear guidance on it.”

Robert Kulesz has decided just to keep his son home during the mornings this week: He’ll arrive at his Astoria elementary school after the day’s testing is complete. Kulesz said his main objection is not the pressure that children are under but that schools are putting test prep ahead of other important elements of a well rounded education.

“They spend more time on this test prep than they spend on art or music or any of that stuff,” Kulesz said, adding that the school had sent home test prep books that cost $13 each but solicited donations for art supplies for class projects. “There’s just something wrong with that.”

Explaining the boycott to their children has been a challenge for some of the families.

“My child feels a little strange because he knows this is something that his entire class is doing,” Mata said. “He still may end up taking the math section as a compromise because he really loves math, but he’s definitely not taking the [English language arts] and he’s okay with that.”

Some parents are taking a less dramatic approach to protest against state testing. Liz Rosenberg, a Brooklyn mother, is asking fellow parents to tell true stories about the effects of testing on her new website, NYC Public.

Lori Chajet, a parent and education researcher who recently wrote about her work around college readiness for GothamSchools, launched a petition on Change.org against the state’s “high-stakes testing madness.” The petition has more than 300 signatures and comments from dozens of parents and teachers.

“I can see that the pressure is not good for my eight-year-old,” wrote David Ricceri, the father of a third-grader, in response to the petition. “The packet of homework we got over the Easter break was crazy!! He had thirteen one-page [stories] to read and answer the questions to (about 7 questions on average). Thirteen pages of math, and 40 minutes of reading each day!

“This is a third-grader we are talking about. I believe with all the crazy pressure he’s under that it’s my job to make sure he has time to daydream, invent and play, but with all this work hanging over us it never feels like enough.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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