Monthly Archives: October 2015

Atlanta, DeKalb Schools Try To Ward Off Potential State Takeover

Some Atlanta-area communities could lose control of their struggling schools if voters approve a plan proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal next fall. The two districts with the most schools at risk are DeKalb County and Atlanta Public Schools. The pressure is on, and the districts are pulling out all the stops to avoid a potential state takeover.

Pressure To Perform 

At a recent DeKalb school board meeting, Morcease Beasley, DeKalb’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained the district’s plan to avoid a potential state takeover.

“Not only [will we have] additional support for academics through our student success tutors, our Georgia Milestones mentors and after-school extended-day programs, we also have our engagement coaches that are strategically placed at various schools, our student success coaches, our post-secondary transition specialists that help by improving the graduation rate,” he said.

Beasley took almost 20 minutes to explain the entire plan. DeKalb has identified 54 schools that could be vulnerable to a potential takeover. Beasley’s challenge is making sure they all improve enough this year to avoid that possibility.

Tosha Croom teaches at Columbia Middle School, which is on the list of 54 schools. Her students vary widely in their academic abilities. Columbia is a magnet school for high achievers, but it also has a large percentage of children from poor households.

“It’s hard to teach a child when a parent tells you, ‘You know, Mrs. Croom, I can’t read,’” she said. “And that kid is the sweetest kid; they’re not the troublemaker. So, I will be intrigued to see what the state comes up with that we’re not already doing.”

An Unclear Alternative

Croom is active in her classroom. She walks to every corner, talks to individual children and makes sure they understand. Because her students are constantly assessed, she’s also honest with them about their progress. She explains their performance on a recent test.

“These three standards, as an eighth-grade class, 48.3 percent mastered those standards,” she tells her class.

Scores like these put the school at risk of a potential state takeover. So, teachers at Columbia decided to turn testing into a competition. The class with the highest scores next time will get a pizza party.

If it works and helps improve the school faster, that’s good news for Deal.

“Nothing would please me better than for us to have no chronically failing schools in the state of Georgia, and that the constitutional amendment would simply be something we could put in the closet and never have to use,” Deal said at a recent conference of educational leaders.

It’s hard to teach a child when a parent tells you, ‘You know, Mrs. Croom, I can’t read.’ –Tosha Croom, 8th grade English/Language Arts teacher at DeKalb’s Columbia Middle School.

Deal says there are 139 failing school now that could be targeted for takeover if voters say “yes” to his plan next year.

“So, as you work hard to get those schools in your systems off the list, just know that the state board, school superintendent’s office, the governor’s office, will be there to help you,” he said. “We want you to do it.”

Columbia Middle School’s principal, Keith Jones, said he’d welcome that kind of help.

“If the state has some initiatives they know will work, I wish they would share them with us now,” he said. “I mean, if they have something special that they have, they’re going to come in and take us from ‘focus,’ to just a regular, traditional school, we would like to know so we can implement it now.”

Some details of the potential state takeover plan are yet to be determined. Officials say some decisions would depend on the needs of the individual schools, but money would play a big role. A takeover could deeply cut into the budgets of systems like DeKalb and Atlanta. Money that would go to individual schools would instead go to the state to run them.

Committing To Change

That threat is enough for APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to hold town hall meetings about failing schools. More than 100 people showed up at a recent meeting at APS headquarters, where Carstarphen was challenged by some community members. Parent Michelle Head said she was tired of hearing officials talk about change, especially in the wake of the test-cheating scandal.

“These are our children. These are our schools. This is our city. These are our neighborhoods, and we’ve all invested our time, our energy in trying to save all of this,” she said. “You haven’t invested anything in this; you’re just getting paid a salary. This is our life. This is our life’s blood. When you’re gone, we’re all still going to be here.”

But Carstarphen said she’s committed to improving APS.

“It’s a broken system,” she said. “I don’t know why, as a community, we don’t understand that Atlanta Public Schools is effectively broken. We have the lion’s share of every problem you could possibly imagine in urban public schools. But I am here. This is my community. They are my babies and my children, and I expect of myself to do a good job with or without the support of anyone else.”

But she does have some support. APS hired a consulting group to help develop a plan for low-performing schools. It’s also hired one of Deal’s former advisers, who designed the takeover plan. But Carstarphen made it clear to the crowd — state takeover or not — it’s time for huge improvements in APS.

“I try not to judge people, but I will say this: I know what I do in my life,” she said. “I know that I care about Atlanta. I know I didn’t come here by accident. I’m from Selma. I’m Black. I have seen what has happened to our children, and I can’t stand it for this city. I cannot stand it. We cannot do this to our Black community, and it’s got to be fixed.”

APS says 26 of its schools — or 60 percent — would qualify for state intervention if the governor’s plan were signed into law today.

With so much money at stake, heavy lobbying is expected in the coming year by supporters and opponents of the takeover idea. But school systems aren’t waiting for the vote count and have already started their own improvement plans.


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The Push To Reduce Standardized Testing

Everybody (and their dog) says we are testing our students too much.  I’m hard pressed to find anybody that says otherwise.  Moving forward in the words of Elvis “A little less conversation, a little more action please.”

U.S. Department of Education
Fact Sheet: Testing Action Plan
One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students. The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.

Administration Actions to Reduce Over-Testing

President Obama has directed the Department of Education (the Department) to review its policies to address any places where the Administration may have contributed to the problem of overemphasis on testing burdening classroom time. As a result, the Administration is undertaking the following …

Calling on Congress to Reduce Over-Testing in ESEA

As Congress works to reauthorize ESEA, it should ensure that the legislation provides the tools that parents, teachers, districts, and states need to assess the progress that all students are making each year, including measuring progress by each subgroup.  It is also important that we make these investments in a way that supports smart, effective assessments and reduces over-testing, including language requiring states to limit classroom time spent on statewide standardized testing. Further, legislation should require that information from tests be shared in a timely, user-friendly, and actionable way with parents, teachers, leaders, and students, where appropriate.

Richard Woods
Statement from Superintendent Richard Woods regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s Testing Action Plan
I am pleased that the President and U.S. Secretary of Education see what we at the state and local levels have seen for years: we test way too much. As I stated early on in my term, we must balance accountability with responsibility. That is why several months ago I called for a testing audit to determine ways we could eliminate unnecessary testing at the state and local levels.

In the days ahead, my team and I will look over this proposal and move forward with recommendations to provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability. Now that the federal government has signaled its willingness to provide flexibility, we as a state must act, in the interests of our students and teachers.

Maureen Downey – AJC Get Schooled
Feds now agree: Too much testing in U.S. schools. But states and districts mandate most tests.
Stung by mounting criticisms it was contributing to the over-testing of American students, the federal government released new guidelines this weekend calling for common sense in testing and a limit on time given over to exams.

A study by the Council of Great City Schools, released in tandem with the USDOE action plan, found, “… the amount of time students spend taking mandatory tests constitutes a surprisingly low percentage (2.34 percent) of the overall time they spend in school given the amount of controversy this issue has generated. At the same time, there are clearly a considerable number of tests, and these tests often pile up at critical points during the school year. But how much is too much, and where is this tipping point?”

The USDOE also cautioned against relying too much on test results to judge students, teachers or schools, stating:  “Assessments provide critical information about student learning, but no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator, or a school. Information from sources such as school assignments, portfolios, and projects can help measure a student’s academic performance.”

The federal Testing Action Plan generally won praise even though most of the required testing occurs at the state and district level.

“We have continued to warn lawmakers about the over-use and over-emphasis of high-stakes standardized testing that has become toxic to our students,” said Sid Chapman, president the Georgia Association of Educators. “The testing culture that has now become pervasive in public education has actually become a hindrance to our students actually learning their subject matter. Educators did not choose this profession to drill students in high-stakes testing.  They want to teach, accurately assess, and look for the light bulb to come on.”

Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, said, “Through the Center for American Progress’ report ‘Testing Overload in America’s Schools released last fall, we documented there is an overemphasis on tests and test preparation in schools that does not put students first. Tests can provide important information for parents, teachers, and school leaders who need to know if students are on track to graduate from high school ready for college or career. But many students are simply tested too often, as frequently as twice per month and once per month on average. As we documented in our report, despite the widespread perception to the contrary, most standardized tests are required by states and school districts, not federal law. Although test administration takes a small fraction of learning time, tests have taken on outsized importance in schools and test preparation takes up valuable instruction time.”

Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods said, “I am pleased that the President and U.S. Secretary of Education see what we at the state and local levels have seen for years: we test way too much. As I stated early on in my term, we must balance accountability with responsibility. That is why several months ago I called for a testing audit to determine ways we could eliminate unnecessary testing at the state and local levels. In the days ahead, my team and I will look over this proposal and move forward with recommendations to provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability.”​

The report by the Council of Great City Schools, an organization of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, offers a lot of data on who is tested and when.

The report information is based on surveys of member districts, analysis of district testing calendars, interviews, and review and analysis of federal, state, and locally mandated assessments:

Among the findings:

•In the 2014-15 school year, 401 unique tests were administered across subjects in the 66 Great City School systems.

•Students in the 66 districts were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12. (This number does not include optional tests, diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English learners, school-developed or required tests, or teacher designed or developed tests.)

•The average student in these districts will typically take about eight standardized tests per year, e.g., two No Child Left Behind tests (reading and math), and three formative exams in two subjects per year.

•In the 2014-15 school year, students in the 66 urban school districts sat for tests more than 6,570 times. Some of these tests are administered to fulfill federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers, or Race to the Top (RTT), while many others originate at the state and local levels. Others were optional.

•Testing pursuant to NCLB in grades three through eight and once in high school in reading and mathematics is universal across all cities. Science testing is also universal according to the grade bands specified in NCLB.

• Testing in grades PK-2 is less prevalent than in other grades, but survey results indicate that testing in these grades is common as well. These tests are required more by districts than by states, and they vary considerably across districts even within the same state.

•Middle school students are more likely than elementary school students to take tests in science, writing, technology, and end-of-course exams.

•The average amount of testing time devoted to mandated tests among eighth-grade students in the 2014-15 school year was approximately 4.22 days or 2.34 percent of school time. (Eighth grade was the grade in which testing time was the highest.) (This only counted time spent on tests that were required for all students in the eighth grade and does not include time to administer or prepare for testing, nor does it include sample, optional, and special-population testing.)

•There is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores in grades four and eight on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

•Test burden is particularly high at the high-school level, although much of this testing is optional or is done only for students enrolled in special courses or programs. In addition to high school graduation assessments and optional college-entry exams, high school students take a number of other assessments that are often mandated by the state or required through NCLB waivers or Race to the Top provisions.

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HOPE scholarship deters college students from majoring in STEM fields: GSU report

High school and college students steer away from classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) out of a fear of jeopardizing their HOPE scholarships, according to recent research by Georgia State University. Credit:

By David Pendered

HOPE STEMFear of losing a HOPE scholarship may be one reason college students are steering away from a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to research conducted by a professor at Georgia State University.

“We find that as a result of these merit aid programs, there was a significant drop in the probability of students majoring in STEM,” David Sjoquist, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Sjoquist is an economics professor in the Center for State and Local Finance and the Fiscal Research Center at GSU’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. John Winters, of Oklahoma State University, collaborated on the project.

Sjoquist and Winters have produced two reports since August that are adding substance to the debate over the need to tweak the HOPE scholarship.

One emerging issue is the scholarship’s requirement that recipients maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0, on a 4.0-point scale. Other requirements exist. The 3.0 GPA must be maintained, regardless of the perceived difficulty of the field of study, to retain the scholarship.

Here’s how Sjoquist framed the issue in GSU’s statement:

  • “Further analysis is needed to explain why merit aid affects the choice of college major. If the effect is a result of students’ concern with earning the grade-point average (GPA) necessary to maintain scholarship eligibility, one policy solution would be to lower the GPA requirement for STEM majors. If high school students avoid courses that would prepare them for STEM majors to maintain eligibility for merit aid, basing their eligibility on SAT or ACT scores could reduce that problem.”

Further research is needed to determine the reason merit aid affects choice of the college major. The Sjoquist/Winters research establishes that merit aid does affect choice of major.

This is the abstract from the paper published in August, emphasis supplied:

  • “Since 1991 more than two dozen states have adopted merit-based student financial aid programs, intended at least in part to increase the stock of human capital by improving the knowledge and skills of the state’s workforce. At the same time, there has been growing concern that the United States is producing too few college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Using microdata from the American Community Survey, this paper examines whether recently adopted state merit aid programs have affected college major decisions, with a focus on STEM fields. We find consistent evidence that state merit programs did in fact reduce the likelihood that a young person in the state will earn a STEM degree.

This is the conclusion of the abstract from the second paper (the beginning of the abstract repeated the wording of the first abstract):

  • “[T]his paper examines whether recently adopted state merit aid programs have affected college major decisions, with a focus on STEM fields. We find consistent evidence that state merit programs did in fact reduce the likelihood that a young person in the state will earn a STEM degree.”

The second study reviewed 27 states, including Georgia, which adopted merit-based state aid programs between 1991 and 2005, according to GSU’s statement. Researchers paid particular attention to nine states viewed as having strong programs – Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Results indicate that a strong merit aid program relates to a 6.5 percent reduction in the number of STEM graduates. The drop could be as great as 9.1 percent. A greater proportion of males than females dropped out of STEM programs, according to the statement.

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What happens if affirmative action in college admissions is banned?

}In the coming months, the Supreme Court will consider—again—whether UT Austin’s use of racial preferences in undergraduate admissions decisions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had failed to apply strict scrutiny in affirming UT Austin’s admissions policy, thus vacating the Fifth Circuit’s original decision and sending the case back down. In the following year, the Fifth Circuit re-affirmed the university’s admissions practices, which was again appealed, and in June of 2015 the Supreme Court announced that they would once again hear Abigail Fisher’s challenge in Fisher v University of Texas Austin, which is now scheduled for the coming December.

As with the original hearing, there is the possibility that the pending decision will make it more difficult for universities to justify using race as a factor in admissions. Many fear that preventing universities from considering race in college admissions will drastically reduce diversity on college campuses. But universities in some states that have already banned affirmative action are using an alternative way of achieving diversity—extending preferences to students with disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

California, for example, started implementing non-race-based methods of increasing on-campus diversity in the late 1990s. Kate Antonovics and I investigated whether admissions criteria changed as a result, and we found selective universities in the University of California system increased the preference given to both low-income students and students who were the first in their family to attend college. These types of preferences are less likely to run afoul of the courts and popular opinion. They also have the side effect of boosting diversity since racial minorities are disproportionately more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Giving preferences to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, however, does not fully restore the loss of racial diversity associated with ending affirmative action. In our study, we found about 20 percent of the loss in minority admissions rates at Berkeley and 30 percent at UCLA were offset by changes in the admissions process. Even so, opening the doors to more students from working class families could increase college diversity in other important ways, such as adding students from areas that previously did not send students to top universities.

Class-based preferences may be a more sustainable solution than affirmative action

Eight states, representing 29 percent of U.S. high school students, have already banned affirmative action in college admissions. Six have done so through statewide votes. The current case is the fourth case challenging racial preferences in higher education to reach the Supreme Court since 2003, with several additional cases contesting topics such as racial preferences in K-12 public school assignment and statewide affirmative action bans.

Fears that the nationwide end to affirmative action would drastically reduce the number of minority students attending college are unfounded. My own research shows that while minority enrollment at the most selective public universities has fallen in states that have banned affirmative action, minority enrollment across all campuses in those states has stayed the same. Thus, affirmative action bans primarily shift minority student enrollment from more selective to less selective public universities while not reducing total enrollment.

To ensure racial diversity in our selective universities, nothing beats race-based preferences in admissions. Nothing else gives universities more freedom in shaping their incoming classes. But as that option loses its political luster, public support, and, perhaps, legal viability (as it has in many states), other pathways may broaden access to selective universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In many cases, this approach may kill two birds with one stone, promoting both racial and economic diversity.

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Cobb school board member: Increase length of school day and year to improve learning

In recommending Cobb County Schools consider an extended day and school year, school board member David Morgan waded into controversial waters: Does more time in the classroom lead to more learning?

At a school board meeting Wednesday, Morgan extolled the benefits of the longer school day being used by the charter school network Success Academy in New York.

KIPP, which operates charter schools in metro Atlanta, also employs a longer school day and school year; the days typically go from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and the school year averages 192 days. The mandated school year in Georgia runs 180 days.

Stopwatch hanging on red ribbon against white background, close-upIt would seem a simple equation: More time ought to equal more learning. But, as with all educational innovations, there are caveats and contrary findings.

Students in many countries that outperform the United States spend less time in school, including Finland. The general consensus is simply adding more time is not enough if you don’t change instruction quality.

As Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who leads the national research on year-round schools, told me once: “But no matter how much time kids are in school, what you do with that time is the most critical aspect.”

Cobb’s Morgan is not alone in seeing more time as a solution to low achievement, especially for at-risk kids who may not get any educational enrichment at home.

According to a recent study by the National Center on Time & Learning: In 2014 alone, at least 35 districts (across more than 10 states) announced that they are implementing or considering implementing a longer day and/or year in at least some schools.

In the preface to its study “Learning time in America: Trends to reform the American School Calendar,” the center advocates for longer school days, noting, “…conventional American school calendar too often poses an enormous impediment to educating the next generation. The core idea presented in Prisoners of Time, the 1994 report of the National Commission on Time and Learning, now rings truer than ever: In schools, learning should be the constant, and time must vary to serve the individual needs of students in achieving high standards. From this perspective, it has become clear that meeting the learning needs of many of our students— especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds— requires considerably more time than is available in the traditional calendar of 180 6.5-hour days.”

In its review of the impact of extended school days, Child Trend recommended more study in these areas:

•More research is needed to confirm and better understand the circumstances through which Extended School Days programs are more effective for low-income, lower-performing, and ethnic minority students. Many of the studies that suggest that these programs are more effective for these subgroups base this finding on the positive outcomes found in evaluated programs solely serving these populations; however, in some studies, outcomes for these groups were not statistically compared with outcomes for students who were not in poverty or who demonstrated higher academic performance in school.

•Researchers suggest many plausible reasons why positive gains for students attending schools with full-day kindergarten programs seem to fade out over time; therefore, future research efforts should focus on ways to better understand this pattern and identify ways to maintain these positive gains over time.

•Future studies examining the effectiveness of Extended School Days programs should not look solely at standardized test scores, but should examine additional educational outcomes as well.

•Future research efforts should incorporate findings about implementation into study results, including information on program quality, content, engagement, and time use.

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Immigrants seeking in-state tuition want court to hear case

The Associated Press

ATLANTA — A group of young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children is asking Georgia’s highest court to overturn the dismissal of a lawsuit they filed seeking access to in-state tuition at the state’s colleges and universities.

The roughly three dozen young immigrants have been granted temporary permission to stay in the U.S. under an Obama administration policy introduced in 2012. Their lawsuit asks a judge to instruct the university system’s Board of Regents to allow them to qualify for in-state tuition.

The Georgia university system requires any student seeking in-state status for tuition purposes to provide verification of “lawful presence” in the U.S. The Regents have said students with temporary permission to stay under the 2012 program — known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA — do not meet that requirement.

Lawyers for the state argue that the young people do not, in fact, have “lawful status” in this country. Moreover, the state’s lawyers argue, the Board of Regents is protected from the lawsuit under the principle of sovereign immunity, which shields the state and state agencies from being sued unless the General Assembly has explicitly waived that protection.

A Fulton County Superior Court judge in June 2014 agreed with the state that the Board of Regents is protected by sovereign immunity, and the state Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in March. Now the young immigrants want the state Supreme Court to rule that the board isn’t protected by sovereign immunity and to send the case back to the Superior Court for a ruling on the merits of the lawsuit.

Charles Kuck, the young immigrants’ lawyer, argues that since they are seeking a declaratory judgment — a ruling by the court that states legal rights — sovereign immunity does not apply. That protection only applies in cases where a party is seeking injunctive relief, which generally involves a court order to do something or stop doing something, Kuck argues.

A 2014 Georgia Supreme Court decision found that state agencies are protected from lawsuits involving damages or injunctive relief, but that opinion did not specifically address declaratory judgments.

If sovereign immunity were to apply to suits seeking a declaratory judgment, it would mean a state agency could make and interpret administrative rules in any way it wanted to and then stand behind sovereign immunity if challenged. That, Kuck added, would be illegal and unconstitutional.

Lawyers for the state argue that the 2014 Supreme Court ruling should not be interpreted as excluding cases in which declaratory relief is sought. The trial court and Court of Appeals were correct in finding that “the same constitutional analysis that protects the State from actions for damages and claims for injunctive relief applies with equal force in protecting the State from declaratory relief,” the state’s brief says.

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in the case Friday in a special session at the Gilmer County Courthouse in Ellijay.

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