tale of two tales

At test score presentations, NYC celebrates, state stays sober

IMG_20130807_110607It was a tale of two press conferences.

Using words like “distressing” and “disheartening,” state education leaders struck a sober tone this morning at their Midtown offices to discuss this year’s test scores.

But at his press event a couple hours later, Mayor Bloomberg had a different take, identifying what he said was “very good news” inside the city’s lower scores.

The scores, the first to reflect students’ performance on tests aligned to new learning standards, were far lower than in the past and suggest that less than a third of students across the state are performing at grade level.

Statewide, the drops were sharpest for students who historically have struggled in school. Across the state, fewer than one in five black and Latino children are on track to graduate from high school prepared to take college courses, according to the new scores, officials said.

“Perhaps the most disheartening piece of today is the persistence of the achievement gap,” New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in her opening remarks. The racial disparities in reading test scores across all grades, Tisch added, “reveal the really daunting, daunting challenge.”

“It’s incredibly distressing,” said State Education Commissioner John King, when asked specifically about low scores in the state’s city school districts. In some upstate cities, less than 10 percent of students met the state’s new proficiency standards.

King and Tisch’s next stop, Tweed Courthouse for the city’s press conference, had a decidedly lighter feel. It was Mayor Bloomberg’s final test score presentation of his tenure, reprising an event that he has regularly used to bolster reform policies that he’s implemented during his 11 years in office.

“We’re here to discuss the new grades, which when you take a look at them and understand them, I think actually is some very good news,” Bloomberg said, adding, “Even though people haven’t written it that way yet, but I can only attribute that to people not understanding the numbers.”

The city’s proficiency scores, which rose sharply until 2010 when new state scoring led to significant drops, have come under scrutiny in recent days by political opponents who say he has misled parents about student learning gains.

But Bloomberg and an accompanying slideshow pointed to a number data points that showed city schools had performed relatively well. The city’s average proficiency in both English and math is closer to the statewide average than ever before, which Bloomberg said was notable since the state’s scores were positively weighted by many suburban districts with more affluent student populations. He credited city teachers for the performance.

Untitled_edit“For us to catch up to the state just couldn’t happen and yet it has happened,” Bloomberg said. “I think our teachers have really stepped up to the plate here.”

New York City’s proficiency slide was much less severe than the four other large urban districts in the state: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers. While the city’s math proficiency rates dropped by about 50 percent, Rochester dropped by 80 percent.

But Bloomberg left out an important distinction when drawing comparisons to other cities, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew argued later in the afternoon.

“There’s one big difference between our school system and any other school system in this state. In this city we have mayoral control,” said Mulgrew, criticizing Bloomberg for not raising standards earlier. “He did not need to wait until the Common Core standards were pushed upon us from the state. He could have raised standards at any time.”

The city also focused on the performance of its charter schools, whose average proficiency rates were 35 percent in math, 11 points higher than district schools, and 25 percent in English, slightly lower than the average district school.

“We will continue supporting the growing charter sector in our city,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Comparing achievement gaps from one year to the next in year with new tests and a new standard baseline is a difficult endeavor, and state officials have warned against using year-to-year comparisons to draw conclusions about how much more or less students learned.

But one of the city’s slides sought to do just that, comparing how students did on the National Assessment of Educational Progress with the new state test scores to suggest that performance has improved since the last time the NAEP test was given in 2011. The two tests are intended to be similar, but an education researcher cringed at the comparison.

“It’s a pretty meaningless comparison because they’re different tests with different content and different perceptions of what rigorous means,” said Aaron Pallas, of Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I can’t see any justification for making that comparison.”

In New York City, the racial achievement gap widened based on a city analysis that compared proficiency rates to last year. While scores for Asian students were down just under 30 percent and fell for white students by under 40 percent, black and Hispanic scores were down by about 60 percent.

Officials said they couldn’t say definitively how much the achievement gap had grown. They said comparing year-to-year proficiency rates is not precise because many students who score near the proficiency threshold are black and Hispanic students, so negative changes in their raw scores are more likely to result in movement to lower proficiency levels.

“It’s reasonable to assume the achievement gap will get wider and it’s also reasonable to assume that kids are going to rise to the challenge,” said Chief Academic Office Shael Polakow-Suransky.

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