testing testing

UFT, allies propose ways to reduce city's emphasis on testing

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and NYGPS spokeswoman Zakiyah Ansari proposed new testing and accountability measures.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and NYGPS spokeswoman Zakiyah Ansari proposed new testing and accountability measures.

A common criticism during campaign season has been that standardized testing plays too large a role in city schools. Today, some who have made the claim most loudly backed up their rhetoric with policy proposals.

In a press conference on the steps of City Hall, the teachers union and New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a coalition that formed to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s school policies, outlined steps that the next mayor should take to end high-stakes testing and improve the Department of Education’s school accountability system.

The city should stop using a single test to admit students to gifted programs and specialized high schools, where allowed under state law, said UFT President Michael Mulgrew and NYGPS spokeswoman Zakiyah Ansari. They also said the next mayor should lobby in Albany and Washington, D.C., for policies that would minimize the role of testing and overhaul the city’s school report card system to weigh factors such as teacher satisfaction and class sizes.

Today, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio stood alongside Mulgrew and voiced his support for the proposals, calling them a roadmap for “hearing the voices of parents” who are the “first stakeholders in this equation.” Other leading Democratic candidates — former comptroller Bill Thompson, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Comptroller John Liu — also sent in statements of support.

The proposals come just days before the union is scheduled to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary. De Blasio is seen as a leading contender for the nod, along with former comptroller and school board president Bill Thompson.

Mulgrew pointed to the Bloomberg administration’s school progress reports, the A-F letter grades that have been given to schools since 2007, as a chief driver of the need for change. In elementary and middle schools, test scores fuel 85 percent of schools’ grades.

“We have the most focused test prep in the entire country because of the progress reports in New York City,” Mulgrew said.

Most Democratic mayoral candidates have said they would stop issuing the letter grades if they became mayor. But few have said how they would instead hold schools accountable and communicate information about them to the public.

Under the proposed accountability system, schools would be measured on “learning environment, student and teacher satisfaction, student outcomes, attendance and suspension rates, course offerings, class sizes, graduation and college readiness rates, and more,” rather than focusing on test scores.

The reports would allow the Department of Education to identify struggling schools, prioritize them, and create a “school improvement infrastructure,” which would involve getting input from teachers, students, and parents to improve the school, according to the proposal. The Bloomberg administration’s approach has been to close low-performing schools, a strategy that all of the Democratic candidates have said they would move away from.

In response to the proposed changes, DOE spokesperson Devon Puglia said schools, teachers and parents today have “more information about school quality and student performance than ever before.” But with new Common Core standards in place, the systems need to evolve, he added.

“That’s why we’ve strengthened our assessment and accountability measures, including many of the steps that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools suggests, such as expanding the use of performance-based assessment and broadening the range of information available to parents and used to prioritize support for struggling schools,” he said.

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.