testing testing

In Brooklyn, wary about state exams, but waiting to protest until after them

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

As hundreds of parents, students, and teachers marched in front of P.S. 321 in Park Slope on Friday to protest the quality of this year’s state tests, a much smaller group waited for an opening. The women weren’t participating in the rally, but simply needed to drop their kids off.

“I understand their concerns, but that’s a teacher and school issue to work out, not to bring out anxiety for the children,” said one of the mothers, Misty March. “Testing is just a part of people’s lives.”

March’s perspective provided a sharp contrast to the backlash against testing that has swept portions of the city in recent weeks, as students and teachers faced a second year of harder state tests whose scores will, for the first time, influence teachers’ annual ratings. Anti-testing advocates estimate that at least four times as many families as last year are choosing to “opt out” of the tests, though the number still represents a tiny fraction of families citywide.

While a handful of P.S. 321 families skipped the tests, the school mostly waited until after the exams to protest. And in contrast to parent-led rallies against testing before the exams, the protest there today was spearheaded by teachers, who said seeing the English tests administered over the last three days left them sure that the tests would not provide a useful measure of students’ skills.

“The kind of things they’re testing would not correlate with somebody’s ability to read and understand what we want kids to be able to do,” said Liz Phillips, the school’s principal. “Day three, which was all short response and essays, was horrible. … It was the third day that pushed everybody over the edge.”

At P.S. 321’s urging, teachers at P.S. 29 in nearby Carroll Gardens — where Chancellor Carmen Fariña launched her teaching career — organized a protest outside their school this morning that drew a few dozen families. The teachers also distributed a letter that they had drafted before the test describing the negative influence of testing on the school.

Leah Brunski, one of three dozen teachers who signed on to the letter, said the teachers had struggled with when to publish the letter but decided to wait until after the English tests were over. “Now it’s not so much about opting out,” she said. “It’s a bigger conversation.”

P.S. 29 Principal Rebecca Fagin noted that families and educators at P.S. 29 hold diverse opinions about testing and said she sees her role as facilitating an ongoing dialogue about the issue. But she said her staff had been surprised by this week’s exams.

“The overwhelming feeling was that the tests really are not a true measure of what the Common Core asks of students,” Fagin said.

Just four families at P.S. 29 — which is located on the same street as Brooklyn New School, where more than 80 percent of families opted out of this year’s tests — chose to skip the exams. Some parents said they had even hired tutors to help their children prepare for the tests.

Lauren Young was one of them: Her son Leo is in fourth grade, and his score could influence where he attends middle school. Young said she had reserved judgment about the state tests because she knew that parents and educators had raised concerns with the state last year, the first to have the exams tied to the tougher Common Core standards.

“We were willing to give them another chance this year,” she said. “We wanted to be open-minded because we thought things would change, and they obviously haven’t.”

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PHOTO: Philissa Cramer
At P.S. 29, students and families shared their reactions to this year’s tests on posters outside the school this morning.

Fagin said that with Fariña at the helm, she expects the city Department of Education to improve the testing situation for families over time.

“I think the stakes for children are being lowered,” Fagin said. “I just absolutely know that there’s conversation and doing right by children is what’s at the forefront.”

But while Fariña has indicated that she wants to untie test scores and grade promotion standards, something that legislators have now mandated, she has not yet set a new promotion policy, leaving families unsure about the true stakes of this year’s tests.

At P.S. 321, Sonia de Beaufort said she considers tests a part of life, however unpleasant they might be. Her son Jonathan, a fifth-grader, said he found this year’s English test to be confusing.

“The questions were not really well-written,” he said. “You don’t really understand what they’re asking.”

But he said he was torn about whether they should not be administered at all, as some critics have demanded.

“The good side,” he said, “is that the test prepared you for the tests that will come in the future, like the SAT and in the eighth grade.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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