early reviews

Difficulty of new state tests apparent on first day, teachers say

As the first day of this year’s state testing period came to a close this afternoon, teachers from across the city took to Twitter to share their takes on whether the exam is shaping up to be as tough as officials have warned.

State education officials caution that discussing the contents of the tests, the first to be tied to the new Common Core standards, could be grounds for termination for teachers. But teachers offered a thorough review without getting into specifics. Many said students struggled to complete the reading test in the allotted time. Others, in multiple grades, said some questions seemed to have multiple correct answers.

Valerie Leak tweeted, “7th[-grade] texts were manageable but Qs were v difficult. kids left guessing w 5 min left. Close reading required w not enough time.”

“Close reading” is a skill that the Common Core emphasizes, and students across the city have been practicing with it all year. But Binh Thai, an eighth-grade English teacher at University Neighborhood Middle School on the Lower East Side, told GothamSchools that the technique and others that the Common Core calls for worked against some students today.

“They maybe overused some of those skills,” he said. “In annotating every single paragraph, they just lost an enormous amount of time.”

Just after the test, Thai tweeted, “Have MPA, MSEd, MA & I cldn’t figure definitive answers 2 some ELA test questions. Kids shdn’t experience this lvl of stress.”

Robbie Havdala shared a similar sentiment. “I scored in the 95th percentile on the GRE verbal this year yet had trouble answering multiple 7th grade ELA test questions,” he wrote.

Mike Locker wrote, “7th/8th: Not enough time for many students; more than several questions seemed to have two valid answer choices.”

ChristinaMLuce tweeted, “My 6th grade students took the entire 90 mins & said the reading was challenging & some questions difficult to understand.”

“Challenging for sure!” tweeted Alison Candamil, a teacher at Harlem Success Academy 4. She added, “intricate questions that required a lot of higher level thinking. Passage difficulty was fair.”

Some educators had less even-handed takes on the new tests. Rratto, who has been critical of the new standards and the State Education Department’s rollout, wrote, “5th grade question vocabulary was an unpleasant surprise.. Ex… which paragraph changed the focus?”

Earlier in the day, he had alluded to a different problem on the test, tweeting, “One should expect an example of inform text on a state test would give accurate and correct info… Not in NYS.”

Sunshinaya wrote, “The 3rd grade NYS ELA was developmentally inappropriate for 3rd graders. The questions were difficult and tricky.”

Earlier in the day, she had tweeted, “Watching students with special needs take the NYS ELA exam but not being able to do what we do in the classroom as teachers is frustrating.”

And Hadas DG wrote, “Students with SpEd extensions were working to the very end of the 135 min. Unclear policy regarding IEPs & reading Qs aloud.”

Other parents and teachers gave the tests better reviews. “My 3rd & 6th graders said test was fair. Both said teachers prepared them well & covered the material. Very promising review,” wrote Mike Reilly, a parent who sits on the Community Education Council for District 31 in Staten Island.

“The test did not in my view turn out as scary as the sample questions suggested,” Yisroel Feld, a teacher at Sinai Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school in Brooklyn, wrote on the school’s website. “The texts were accessible, somewhat engaging. They were on average longer than in the past, but all in all appropriate. The questions were varied and, at this first glance, pretty well crafted.”

Today’s testing included only multiple-choice questions based on fiction and nonfiction passages. Over the next two days, students will complete additional portions of the test that include short-answer and essay questions. Next week, students will take math tests.

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.