keeping track

Final 'opt-out' numbers show movement jumped in city

PHOTO: Annette Kathryn Konoske-Graf
In April, students, parents, and teachers marched outside P.S. 87 shouting "Show us the test."

Much of the past five days have been spent picking apart the performance of 410,000 city students who took this year’s state tests. On Tuesday, city and state education officials provided more details about those who didn’t.

About 4,700 city students did not take this year’s English tests and 15,470 students didn’t take the math exams, according to an updated tally released by the State Education Department and the city Department of Education. The totals include 1,925 students whose protesting parents opted their children out of taking the tests, a 450 percent increase over last year.

More than 10,400 of those who didn’t take the math test were eighth-graders who took a high school-level math Regents exam instead, thanks to a new state policy meant to avoid overtesting.

The updated figures follow a confusing initial release of data showing that more than 22,000 city students didn’t take the English tests and 26,000 didn’t take the math tests—numbers that were immediately called into question. After a few days of fact-checking and data-sharing between the two education agencies, state spokesperson Dennis Tompkins said those numbers erroneously included thousands of private school and home-schooled students.

Even with those figures deflated, the number of students who didn’t take this year’s state tests has jumped.

A relatively small number of students don’t participate in state tests every year for reasons including long-term absences or illnesses. But an increasing number aren’t taking the exams for political reasons.

Parents who are a part of the “opt-out” movement chose to keep their students from taking the exams in opposition to the state’s adoption of the Common Core standards or to the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations, school grades, and student promotion decisions. (This role of this year’s tests in all of those consequences has been reduced because of recent legislative action.)

Though the movement grew fastest in districts outside of New York City, the newest numbers indicate that it is now entrenched in city public schools. Two years ago, just 113 students opted out, and 356 did last year.

In a statement, a city spokeswoman noted that the students who opted out were still a tiny fraction of tested students.

“Less than one-half of one percent of students in grades 3-8 opted to not take the State math and ELA tests this year,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “Listening closely to all student and parent voices is a top priority of our administration, and this is no exception. We continue to listen carefully to all families’ concerns, and we also continue to engage students, parents, and school communities to explain how the tests can play a valuable role in our most important goal: improving learning in the classroom.”

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.