beyond the bubble

On early ed tests issue, agreement on everything but a solution

First grade teacher John O'Hickey, of Brooklyn School of Inquiry. Part of O'Hickey's evaluation will be based on state test scores from students in higher grades.
First grade teacher John O’Hickey, of Brooklyn School of Inquiry. Part of O’Hickey’s evaluation will be based on state test scores from students in higher grades in the school.

When it comes to getting rid of standardized testing in early grades, the city and the teachers union are on the same page — both want them eliminated from their teacher evaluation plans.

But the two sides, whose toxic relationship seems to have reached new highs in Mayor Bloomberg’s final year in office, are taking different approaches toward achieving the same end goal.

The United Federation of Teachers ratcheted up its latest critique of teacher evaluations today by joining a statewide coalition that wants to ban standardized tests in any class below third grade. UFT President Michael Mulgrew first raised the issue two weeks ago, arguing that they are developmentally inappropriate because some students can barely hold a pencil, let alone fill in bubble sheets.

“To be using it at these young ages is just ridiculous,” Mulgrew said today on a conference call with reporters.

In New York City, a small fraction of the city’s roughly 800 elementary schools is supposed to administer the bubble tests this year because of how the city’s evaluation plan was written, though parents at some schools are rebelling against the mandate.

Officials at the Department of Education agree with Mulgrew, but they are hoping a quieter discussion with state education Commissioner John King will lead to a solution. There is optimism that the strategy is working.

“The commissioner has indicated a willingness to look at this issue and consider some flexibility for the current school year,” Polakow-Suransky said. 

Polakow-Suransky said he first has to submit an official legal request, which is required whenever the city or the UFT wants the state to interpret or adjust the evaluation plan that King imposed for New York City back in June.

It’s an approach that apparently the union isn’t interested in being a part of, according to Polakow-Suransky.

“We have invited the UFT to jointly submit this clarification and have not heard back,” he said in an email.

Update: The department sent a letter to the state with its request, a copy of which is below.

The issue has its roots in King’s decision, which became necessary because New York City was the lone district in the state unable to negotiate a plan with its local teachers union.

King required all schools to use performance-based reading and math assessments developed by the city for the evaluations. But Polakow-Suransky said he withheld the math assessments for early grades because they were brand new and would have been an unreasonable burden for schools in a school year that was already full of changes.

Most elementary schools had a “default” option to use average growth scores from state tests taken by students in higher grades, but the small number of K-2 schools in New York City were left with the standardized tests as a last-ditch fix.

“Without possibly intending to, [King’s decision] created a situation where we had, at the K-2 level, to make a choice between essentially putting out a test that would be mandated for every elementary school in the city, or not putting anything out at all,” Polakow-Suransky said earlier this month.

The state coalition says that a solution for just New York City wouldn’t be good enough because some districts outside of the city were also using the tests. On the conference call, a first grade teacher from Suffolk County said that her evaluation plan required her to administer online tests that were similarly inappropriate.

King said in a statement today that he agreed with Mulgrew and Polakow-Suransky on the early testing. A spokesman didn’t respond specifically to whether King was open to adjusting the plan for the city’s K-2 schools, but King’s statement suggested it was possible.

“We support the drive to prohibit standardized testing of pre K through 2nd grade students,” King said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to working together to make sure that children are protected from more testing than is necessary at the local school district level.”

Letter to King

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.