policy admissions (updated)

City principals say they won't use test scores to screen students

Distressed by state tests that they say did not reflect the way they want students to learn, several city principals are pledging not to use the scores to help them pick their students.

Selective middle schools consider students’ fourth-grade reading and math scores, and selective high schools look at students’ seventh-grade scores.

But after the first round of state tests tied to new standards known as the Common Core, about a dozen principals have announced — in an open letter to parents, students, educators, and others with an interest in education — that they are abandoning the use of test scores in admission, at least for now.

“We welcome rigor, high standards and accountability, but demand that these three crucial words and concepts not be thrown around loosely; and, even more importantly, we demand that they be implemented in a proper, respectful and effective way,” write the principals, who come from a range of selective schools in three boroughs. “Therefore, we cannot grant these recent tests the value others claim they have until [our] concerns are addressed.”

The principals say they want the state’s tests to be shorter, open to public scrutiny, and more aligned to the Common Core, which emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving over recall and the completion of rote processes.

Mark Federman, principal of East Side Community School, said he helped draft the letter after being “shocked and appalled and just really saddened” that this year’s state tests did not match up to what he expected of the Common Core.

“The power that we have as principals and as schools is we decide how important [test scores] are,” he said. “It would be hypocritical for us to use them in admissions.”

The principals are also registering their criticism in a letter that Federman said would be sent soon to State Education Commissioner John King. Journalist Andrea Gabor first reported about both letters on her blog.

Like most of the principals who signed the letters, Rex Bobbish, principal of the Cinema School, a selective Bronx high school, has never made test scores the exclusive or even prime factor when selecting applicants. But he told GothamSchools that he always considers them, and in the past, he has assumed that very low scores meant that students would not be prepared for high school. Now, he said, he won’t make the same assumption.

“I will weigh students’ grades in core courses much more heavily than the state exams going forward,” he said. “That’s the pledge I made when I signed that letter.”

At schools where test scores have factored more heavily into admissions decisions, making the same pledge is less straightforward, Federman said. Still, he said, principals there could facilitate an important discussion about the role of test scores.

“If there’s a school and parents that are boycotting the test, and yet the school is using tests to let kids in, I think that’s a good conversation for that community to have,” he said.

Among the principals who have signed on to the pledge is Ramon Gonzalez of M.S. 223 in the South Bronx. Days after the state tests finished last month, Gonzalez told a crowd of policy makers — including AFT President Randi Weingarten, who has called for a one-year moratorium on stakes for Common Core exams — that the tests had distressed his teachers and students.

“They didn’t know it would be a test of endurance,” Gonzalez said about his students. “They thought it would be a test about what they knew.”

Bobbish said changing their schools’ admissions criteria represents a small step that principals can take against state tests’ increasing stakes, an issue that several mayoral candidates have pledged to address.

“There’s not really much we can do about it,” said Bobbish, who said he supports the Common Core standards but grew concerned after colleagues told him that the tests did not appear to be fully aligned to the standards. “We can’t control the whole world, but we can send a message by saying we really value a student’s long-term effort and what they do in teachers’ classrooms more than what their tests show.”

This story has been updated with comments from Mark Federman and to reflect the fact that the letter to John King has not yet been sent.

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