testing test drive

State looks to create its own computer-based tests as officials put off switch to PARCC

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

New York students could take their annual state tests on computers in 2017, according to a state document seeking bids for a contract to create new electronic English and math exams.

The five-year contract would begin in July, months before the state’s current $32 million contract with the testmaker Pearson expires in December. While the winning bidder would be required to create computer-based exams by spring 2017, schools will have the option to stick with the pencil-and-paper exams that students currently take in grades three through eight, the document adds.

That move further delays New York’s shift from print to computer-based tests, suggesting that many schools are not ready for the change.

State officials had previously planned to roll out computer-based tests this year, when a group of states will begin giving online exams tied to the Common Core standards. Officials later decided to hold off switching to the exams created by that group, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

The state’s latest decision to develop its own computer-based tests indicates that officials have no immediate plans to adopt the PARCC exams, even as other states make the switch. Instead, schools will have several more years to prepare for New York’s own digital tests.

“It will be at the discretion of each school and revisable annually, as to whether they will administer by paper or computer or both,” according to the request for proposals posted by the state education department last week, which calls this a “voluntary shift.” It adds that the state does not know how many schools will initially switch to computer-based tests, but expects the number “will increase each school year of this contract,” which would extend to 2020.

New York has been planning to convert to computer-based tests since at least 2010, when it adopted the Common Core standards and joined PARCC. In 2012, State Education Commissioner John King told districts to prepare to give computer-based tests by 2015, when the consortium’s tests were to be ready. (PARCC received a $186 million federal grant to build the “next-generation” assessments, which the group hired Pearson to help develop.)

But the next year New York decided not to immediately switch to the PARCC tests, which will be available at first in both paper and online forms. The decision was partly because not all schools had the necessary technology or Internet bandwidth to give the online exams. But it was also because officials had paid Pearson to create a pencil-and-paper Common Core test just for New York, which students first took in 2013.

Now, as other states in the consortium take the online PARCC tests this year, New York students will continue taking the state’s printed Common Core test. State officials have not said if or when New York will adopt the PARCC tests, though one top official recently said the state has “no current plans” to use them. The state education department did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday.

New York City officials have expressed interest in converting to online exams ahead of the rest of the state. Last year, 95 city schools took trial versions of the PARCC tests.

Still, many schools do not have the necessary technology. Only a quarter of city schools currently have enough devices to administer the online test, officials said last April, and many of the devices schools do have are outdated. A city education department spokesman said Wednesday that a switch either to PARCC or the state’s own computer-based tests “will require a transition period of several years.”

Even as the state prepares to build its own new tests, it is still possible it could switch to PARCC eventually, said Jack Bierwirth, the superintendent of the Herricks school district on Long Island and co-chair of the Council of School Superintendents’ assessment subcommittee.

The state could relatively cheaply convert its current paper exams into computer-based versions that it could use temporarily, he said. That would give the state time to find a new education commissioner, wait to see if federal testing laws change, and then decide whether to adopt the PARCC tests, Bierwirth said.

“To me,” he said, “this all ends up being essentially a few years of an interim assessment while the dust settles.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

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