the admissions test

More children passing the gifted exam, but not in poorer districts

More children than ever passed the city’s admissions test for gifted and talented programs this year, according to data released today by the Department of Education. But the number of children qualifying in the city’s poorest districts has actually fallen in recent years.

In four districts where qualifying scores have historically been so scarce that the city has not opened gifted programs, just 52 children scored high enough to make them eligible for admission.

The 9,416 students who scored higher than 90 percent on the city’s two tests outpaced last year’s total — 7906 — by about 20 percent. The total represents a 77 percent spike since 2008, when the city first turned to a standardized application process for its elementary school gifted programs.

The increase means that more students are eligible to enroll in district-based gifted programs, which require scores in the 90th percentile or above, as well as in five elite citywide programs that requires scores in the 97th percentile. Last year saw a drop in students who qualified for the citywide programs, but the 4,092 students who scored that high this year is 40 percent more than two years ago.

The increase in applications and qualifying scores has been largest in districts with many affluent families. This year, just 52 students posted qualifying scores in in the South Bronx (Districts 7 and 9), East New York (District 23) and Bushwick (District 32) out of 479 test-takers — 27 percent fewer than in 2009.

The Bloomberg administration standardized the admissions process for gifted programs five years ago in an effort to increase equity. Before then, admission standards varied by school and neighborhood, an arrangement that critics said benefited only the most resourceful — and affluent — families. The city also began to make a more concerted effort to provide information about the process to more families.

As a result, the number of children who took the test saw a significant increase in the first year that the reforms were rolled out, but those numbers dropped back down in 2010. The number of test-taking children in high-poverty districts has barely changed since.

Now, the city is developing its own test to screen students for giftedness as a replacement for the tests it currently uses, the BSRA and OLSAT. A Department of Education spokesman said the new test would likely be administered during next year’s admissions cycle.

Robin Aronow, a consultant who helps families navigate public school admissions, said she thought the department was trying again to increase equity in gifted program admissions.

“I think it’s one of the reasons — to level the playing field a bit,” she said.

Aronow attributed the boost in qualifying students to more vigorous test preparation. “There’s been lots of prepping going on to make sure kids are ready for this test,” she said.

Explaining the phenomenon in 2010, she said, “Certainly there is prep that is going on all over the city. There are books out there now for kids. There are independent companies that have boot camps. Can I attribute all of the increase to that? Not necessarily, but I’m sure it played a role.”

As has always been the case, a spot in the citywide programs is hardly guaranteed for top scorers. Last year, 1,803 incoming students qualified for about 325 seats.

This year, 102 fewer children made the cutoff, and education officials said they expected that there would be more seats available. But last year, about 970 students scored 99 or above, “so you still have to be lucky just to get in,” Aronow said.

The number of students scoring in the 99th percentile this year was not immediately available. More than 40 percent of the qualifying students scored at the 97th percentile or higher.

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 [email protected]

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