Writing tests break new ground

The National Assessment of Educational Progress on Friday released the result of its first tests given entirely on computer, writing assessments taken by a national sample of eighth-graders and 12th-graders in 2011.

Testing illustrationThe results showed that about 27 percent of students in both grades scored at or above “proficient” and about 80 percent performed at the “basic” level or higher.

The tests, given to 24,600 eighth-graders and 28,900 high school seniors in both public and private schools, scored students as basic, proficient or advanced. The average scale score for both grades was 150 out of 300.

Test results were not broken down by state, so scores for Colorado students were not available.

Because of the new format, the results can’t be compared to previous pen-and-pencil NAEP writing tests.

“Only a quarter of the nation’s students are scoring where we want them to,” said Susan Pimentel, an education consultant who serves on the NAEP board. Although the results can’t be directly compared to past tests, she said, “What is interesting is that the 2011 data show the same patterns (as) paper and pencil tests” in such areas as achievement gaps. “The gender gap – it is stark.”

For instance, test results found the percentage of eighth-grade girls scoring proficient or above was twice the percentage of boys. “Boys are lagging behind girls substantially,” she noted.

During a live webinar, Pimentel and other experts stressed the promise of electronic testing and the importance of what Pimentel called “an historic event.”

Arthur Applebee, an expert in language education from the State University of New York campus in Albany, noted, “The students were clearly ready. … People were worried that students weren’t ready, but those worries were wrong.”

Commenting on whether there is a digital divide between students based on family income, Applebee said, “The short answer seems to be no. … The computer format doesn’t seem to penalize one group or another.” Test results showed the achievement gaps are similar for paper test and computer assessments, he said.

Beverly Chin, director of the English teaching program at the University of Montana, said the tests “highlight the importance of integrating computers into writing instruction.”

In Colorado

Colorado’s current testing system requires annual separate writing tests in grades three through 10.

TCAP test results for 2012, released last month, showed 54 percent of students are writing at grade level, a marginal decline from 2011.

Results for only Colorado eighth-graders have been broken out on two prior NAEP writing tests, in 1998 and in 2007. The 1998 Colorado students scored as levels about the same as the nation; in 2007, state scores were slightly higher.

NAEP, often called the “nation’s report card,” tests on a variety of subjects at different time intervals. Most tests are given to representative samples of fourth-graders and eighth- graders. State-by-state results are broken out for some tests but not others. Check this NAEP page for state results. Click Colorado on the U.S. map and then scroll down to see results over the years.

Many states don’t test writing separately but rather include it in overall English tests. There have been attempts to eliminate writing tests in Colorado to save money, but those have been rebuffed in the legislature.

The future of separate writing tests is unclear. The TCAP tests are transitional, and for now it appears Colorado will move in two or three years to multistate tests being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing consortium. That group is creating English and math tests based on the Common Core Standards, which Colorado has adopted.

Colorado probably will have to develop its own tests in science, which is currently tested; in social studies, which the State Board of Education wants to add; and possibly in writing.

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

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