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Four big questions to ask about New York City's new test scores

Last year, 60 percent of city students in grades 3-8 scored “proficient” or higher on the state math tests and 47 percent passed the state reading tests. This year, the first that the tests were tied to new learning standards known as the Common Core, that number will be far lower — 30 percent in math and 26 percent in reading, according to early reports. Here are four things to ask about the test scores, in addition to how low they are.

1. Where are the outliers?

All scores are expected to be low, but some will be lower than others. And some will almost certain fall by much less than the average. Identifying those outliers will be a first step in telling the story of schools’ first year under the new standards.

A school whose scores fall by far less than other similar schools might be the site of exceptional, Common Core-aligned teaching — or there might be more nefarious explanations worth looking into. On the other hand, a school whose scores drop by even more than other schools like it might have been propping up its performance in the past using test prep — that will be worth looking into, too. The scores alone won’t tell the story of what has happened inside a single school, but they can provide a starting point.

2. What happened to achievement gaps?

The Bloomberg administration has touted reductions in the racial achievement gap even after state officials announced that test scores had been inflated. The state’s test scores have showed some narrowing. But on other measures, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, racial achievement gaps have barely budged.

The new scores will add another data point to the debate. King signaled on Tuesday that there remain significant achievement gaps by race and socioeconomic status. That’s no surprise — but what will be worth extra scrutiny is whether the new tests magnified gaps that already existed, or whether the tougher material had any kind of equalizing effect. If it turns out the black students or poor students handled the more challenging tests even less well, for example, that will raise serious questions about past gap-closing claims and about the education that high-need students are getting.

Of course, one funny thing about achievement gaps is that they can close even when everyone’s performance falls. It’s possible that black and white students will do similarly poorly — and in that case, it will be fascinating to see how state and city officials talk about discrepancies.

3. How is the city talking about the change?

Three years ago, when the state raised the bar for students to be considered proficient, city officials did little to prepare New Yorkers for the bad news. The day the scores came out, Bloomberg scrambled to find the right message — and he wound up striking a relativist tone.

“Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” Bloomberg said about the lower scores. Later, he added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”

This time around, the city is not leaving its messaging up to glibness. Education officials have worked to manage expectations about the low scores for more than a year, and in the last week, they have aggressively worked to control the test-score narrative. On Tuesday, for example, Chancellor Dennis Walcott noted that Bloomberg had called for higher standards in a 2006 Washington Post op/ed. (A year later, Bloomberg said he was “ecstatic” about the city’s outsized single-year state test gains.)

We can expect to hear Bloomberg emphasize today that comparing this year’s scores to last year’s is like comparing apples to oranges — and that is true, statistically. But New Yorkers still want to know how the city’s schools performed under their three-term mayor, and hearing that more than a decade of touted growth should be forgotten is unlikely be a satisfying option. We’ll be listening for how the city situates the new scores inside the narrative it has projected up to now.

4. How does the city compare?

In recent years, as the state has raised standards, city officials have turned to intra-state comparisons to prove New York City’s relative success. Last year, the city’s scores increased by more than the rest of the state’s, and its growth also outpaced several other large cities, so even though the city’s one-year gains weren’t huge, they looked large in comparison.

City officials seem prepared to make the same comparisons today, arguing that preparation here has been strongest for the new standards. If New York City’s scores fall less than the scores of the other large cities that students here are often compared to, one explanation could be that the Department of Education’s preparation paid off. (Extreme dysfunction in the other cities could be another explanation.)

But if the decline cuts across similar districts in the state evenly, it could be that the preparation was not enough, as the teachers union has claimed. Other possibilities could be true: that even as the city asked for instructional changes, teachers stayed their previous course, as so often happens in school reform, for example. Or that the city’s students were asked to perform so far below the new standards in the past that a massive one-year effort made little dent. Again, score comparisons with the state won’t tell a complete story, but they will offer new ways of looking at what has happened in city schools over the last year.

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