stacking up

A few states, but not N.Y., see big gains on 'nation's report card'

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New York’s fourth grade reading scores didn’t see significant changes from 2011.

In a year when a few states posted across-the-board gains, New York State saw limited progress on the test known as “the nation’s report card,” according to new data released today about the 2013 tests.

Only fourth-grade math scores saw a statistically significant increase on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an assessment given to fourth- and eighth-graders across the country every two years. New York students’ scores in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, and eighth-grade math showed no significant changes from 2011.

That’s a better result than the scores two years ago, when New York was one of just two states to post significant declines. (New York City’s scores outpaced the rest of the state slightly.)

Across the country, Tennessee, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia saw the biggest gains across both grades and subjects, though scores for Washington, D.C. especially still rank among the nation’s lowest.

“You’d like to see some steady improvement across subjects, though generally seeing an increase in all subject-grade combinations is very rare,” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP. “It’s hard to move the needle on all four grades and subjects unless you’re really doing something.”

But he cautioned that the numbers themselves don’t point to specific successes. “There will be a flurry of people taking credit for their favorite policy and blaming their least favorite policy for why their scores didn’t go up,” he said.

Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested that Tennessee and D.C. in particular had succeeded because of their “laser-like focus on teacher effectiveness” and rapid shift to new standards known as the Common Core. Duncan made adopting common standards and new teacher evaluations that weigh student performance a requirement for winning federal Race to the Top funds in 2010. Tennessee was one of the earliest winners, and D.C. joined New York in a second pool of grant recipients.

Duncan also emphasized that none of the first eight states to adopt Common Core standards saw statistically significant score decreases between 2009 and 2013 — though many of those states didn’t see see increases, either.

He attributed the variations among states to what he called “extraordinary leadership” at the state level, from officials who have “done some very difficult and courageous work” raising standards. He added, “Where people are more timid, you’re seeing less progress.”

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, said the NAEP results validate the pace of change in Tennessee and D.C.

“That’s why this is so significant — there was huge pushback, particularly from current school personnel who liked the way things were going,” Hanushek said. “You wouldn’t want to get into a fight if it had no impact. But in fact — the improved performance is something that they should be proud about.”

Hanushek said the overall picture remained discouraging, with scores across the country improving less quickly than they have in the past.

Two years ago, New York State Education Commissioner John King said New York’s NAEP scores would increase once planned policy changes went into effect. The state’s first round of Common Core-aligned tests was last spring, after the most recent NAEP administration. And teachers in most of the state only recently got their first ratings that consider student performance; teachers in New York City won’t be evaluated that way until after this year.

“The scores on this NAEP report underscore a tough but necessary truth: Our students are not where they should be,” King said in 2011. “The reforms we’re implementing will help get them there.”

Some of the national results bucked recent trends. In the past, much of the score increases have been attributed to the lowest-performing students catching up with their peers. This year, Buckley noted that a big chunk of states’ gains came from high-performing students pulling further ahead. Gains have also been more common historically at the fourth grade level, but this year it was eighth-grade reading that improved most.

For years, NAEP has been the only way to compare student performance across states with vastly different standards for their own tests. But Buckley argued that the tests will remain relevant even as more states align their tests to common standards, given how many variations remain and the importance of NAEP’s long-term data collection.

“If everything is changing, we’re going to be the only time series people can use to make comparisons,” Buckley said.

New York City’s local results will come out in December along with data from other urban school districts. In the past, the city’s state test score gains have outpaced the state’s, but it would be hard for NAEP scores statewide to shift one way if the city’s scores moved the other way, given the city’s population.

Jaclyn Zubrzycki contributed reporting.

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