guinea pigs

With field tests approaching, parents are reprising protests

A group of parents and teachers are once again preparing to opt their children out of state tests, this time when their schools will administer “field” exams in over a thousand elementary and middle schools across the city next month.

Field testing allows test makers to gauge the value of future test questions. Pearson, the company that currently makes New York’s state tests, is preparing a slew of new questions that are aligned with new learning standards known as the Common Core. This spring’s field tests focus on science, math, or reading, depending on the grade level. Students in selected schools already took the science test in mid-May, which was for grades 4 and 8. The math and reading tests are scheduled for the first week of June.

The parents and teachers, who are part of the Change the Stakes coalition, are calling on parents to protest the testing, which will be administered on behalf of Pearson Education, the test publisher that famously drew criticism for the “pineapple” test questions on the state’s eighth-grade English exam in April.

“This is just research for the company,” said Tony Kelso, whose third-grader is supposed to take the reading field test at Amistad Dual Language School in Inwood.

Kelso added that he doubted Pearson would get useful information from the tests. “My understanding is that the tests aren’t even reliable. The students know they won’t count so they don’t take them seriously,” he said.

A small number of students opting out would be unlikely to affect the big picture that Pearson is seeking to draw from the field tests, according to Sean Corcoran, a New York University researcher who studies testing. “Since the test is given statewide, inferences about performances will largely be based on how students do relative to all test takers statewide. It would take a lot of students opting out to change this distribution.”

Unlike regular state tests, students will not find out how they’ve performed on the field tests. Instead, Pearson’s field tests are supposed to provide data to improve future tests, according a memo sent to superintendents and principals in March from Ken Slentz, the state’s Deputy Commissioner of P-12. Pearson landed a $32 million contract with the state in 2010 to produce elementary and middle school tests over five years.

But several parents want to know why their schools didn’t inform them about the stand-alone field tests.

“I found out about it through the grapevine,” said Kelso, who isn’t allowing his son to take the test. “I plan on calling every third grade parent to see if they will join me in writing a letter to the principal. I’m against these high stakes tests. It just results in teachers being forced to teach for the test.”

The protest is part of the grassroots organization’s campaign to reduce the culture of high stakes testing, which the organization said “distorts classroom curriculum” and emphasizes “mind-numbing” test preparation.

“I have seen my son go from being excited to being bored by school,” said Diana Zavala, who is involved with the Change the Stakes campaign. “This is all about making money for Pearson. They create the tests and study guides. This is a huge business for them.” Zavala was one of the parents who chose to opt of the state testing for their children this year but her son isn’t required to take the field test.

Other parents are questioning why a stand-alone field test is being administered when Pearson already embedded field questions in the state tests this year.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Jinnie Spiegler, whose daughter is in fourth grade and feels pressured to do well because the state tests influence which middle school she is admitted to. “They’re basically doing free pilot studies.” Her daughter class wasn’t selected to take the field test.

“The schools should inform parents and give us the option to opt out,” she said.

Children who opt out of the state tests are assessed on a portfolio of work instead. Unlike the state tests, there are no consequences for boycotting the field tests, according Matthew Mittenthal, the press secretary for the city’s Department of Education.

But there is no opt-out option for teachers like Lauren Cohen, who teaches the third grade at P.S. 63, a Lower East Side elementary school. Her students will take Pearson’s reading test during one class period.

“It’s hard because I feel like I’m caught between ethics in what I believe and my ethics that I need to be doing my job,” said Cohen.

Many of Cohen’s students receive special education services and struggled to sit through the 90-minute state tests in April, which were longer this year because of the embedded field questions.

“I definitely want to make it a stress-free situation for my kids,” added Cohen. “I’m not going to hide the fact that the field-test doesn’t count toward anything.”

 

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