testing testing

Under pressure to score tests faster, a proposal to scrap writing

Next year, the state’s English tests could be missing one crucial component: writing.

That’s the conclusion that educators are drawing after the Board of Regents weighed a proposal earlier this month to eliminate the open-ended question section of the state’s standardized tests — the only part of the third through eighth grade testing regime that asks students to write out their answers in sentences.

The proposal is one of several ideas the Board of Regents, the state panel that sets New York’s education policy, is considering in order to speed up the test-grading process, following a new federal regulation ordering states to tell schools sooner whether or not they are meeting states standards. (State test scores play a large part in making that decision.) Changing the way the tests are graded could also cut costs.

The Regents have been studying how to meet the new federal requirement for almost a year. The prospect of scrapping writing first surfaced publicly when the Regents published the findings of a survey the board conducted to study the question. Of 22,000 parents and educators surveyed, 85% said the essay questions should remain.

Two other proposals are also on the table. One would have schools give the tests earlier in the year, a change educators said would give them less time to prepare students and make the tests a poor judge of the teacher’s performance. Another proposal would hire an outside vendor grade the tests, rather than local New York teachers. More than three-quarters of teachers said in the poll that they prefer local or regional scoring to the vendor option. Some teachers said they appreciate grading as a chance to get a better understanding of the test.

But it’s the change to the English test that’s attracted the most disappointment. “It would be a disaster if they took those questions off,” said Deborah Reck, the CEO and co-founder of The Writers’ Express, a Boston-based nonprofit that supports writing instruction, including some classes in the city. Overburdened teachers would spend less time teaching writing if they knew their students wouldn’t be tested on it, she said.

Bronx middle school English teacher Jordan Kutcher is one of those teachers. At a school whose test scores are low, Kutcher spends two months prepping students for the state exam. Knowing what’s on the exam helps her choose what to focus on, she said. “I can see the argument that [changing the test] could lead to less writing instruction, which is a bad thing,” she said.

Lynette Guastaferro, the executive director of Teaching Matters, a non-profit based in the city, said eliminating writing would make the test less rigorous. “I’m not in favor of throwing out the section that I think tests higher-order thinking skills,” she said.

One policy analyst told me it’s possible that the state could find better ways to make scoring more efficient. Bill Tucker, chief operating officer at the D.C. think tank Education Sector and the author of a recent report on the future of testing, said that the state could cut scoring costs substantially by requiring each essay to be read only once — by a human. Then, rather than getting a second pair of eyes to check that score, a computer could do the corroboration.

Only if there is a discrepancy between the two scores would a second human review both grades, Tucker suggested. (This is how the essay section of the GRE, taken by applicants to graduate school, is being graded as of this year.)

The Board of Regents has yet to decide the fate of open-ended state test questions. “There was a discussion,” said State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn about the Regents’ March 16 meeting. “But no conclusions were made.”

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