News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Tennessee Unveils List of Ailing Schools

Public schools in Memphis dominate a list of poorly performing schools published by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Public schools in Memphis dominate a list of poorly performing schools published by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The list, released last month, is required under a landmark education improvement law approved by state lawmakers in 1992.

Schools are selected based on three years of student test- score data and, in the case of high schools, their dropout rates. The cited schools have two years to improve or face a possible state takeover in 2004.

Of the 98 elementary and secondary schools on the list, almost two- thirds—or 64—are in Memphis. With its 118,000 students and 175 schools, Memphis is the state's largest district.

The district made national news this summer after school officials scrapped a closely watched effort to prod every school in the city to adopt a whole-school-reform program. They said the adopted programs had failed to produce substantial achievement gains. ("Memphis Scraps Redesign Models in All Its Schools," July 11, 2001.) Johnnie B. Watson, who became the district's superintendent a year ago, called Memphis' prominence on the list "disheartening" and pledged to improve test scores this school year.

Under Tennessee's accountability system, the state provides extra help, including assistance from so-called "exemplary teachers,'' to all schools on the list.

The state last year put 48 schools across the state on notice that they might be cited as underperforming. But this year marks the first time the state published its official list of such schools. Of the 26 Memphis schools on that earlier list, one-fourth have since moved off it.

—Debra Viadero

Calif. Governor Vetoes Study of Heavy Backpacks

California Gov. Gray Davis last week vetoed a $140,000 plan to study the effects of heavy backpacks on students' health, saying such concerns should be addressed locally.

Supporters of the measure, which was backed by the California Chiropractic Association and passed unanimously by both the Assembly and the Senate, said student backpacks have become unbearably bulky as schools have cut down on available locker space out of concern that students might use them to conceal weapons. Asking elementary-age children to carry 20 to 30 pounds on their backs, proponents say, may have long-term health consequences.

The legislation called for a nonprofit group to determine whether students' weighty backpacks can be linked to spinal damage and to suggest possible alternatives to the heavy loads.

"While I am concerned with potential student-health problems, there does not appear to be any documentation of long-term problems caused by the use of backpacks," the Democratic governor said in a veto message released Sept. 24. "Medical experts advise that the incidence of any back, neck, and shoulder pain can be minimized through use of a well-padded, adjustable backpack worn correctly to distribute weight evenly."

—Jessica L. Sandham

Exit-Exam Appeals Process Proposed in Mass.

Massachusetts' schools chief last week proposed to the board of education that students who just miss a passing score on the state's exams be allowed to graduate if they can show through grades or other measures that they have learned enough to earn a degree.

The class of 2003 is the first required to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests in English and mathematics to graduate.

Under the Sept. 25 proposal from Commissioner David P. Driscoll, students would be eligible to appeal if they have passing grades on their classroom work but have failed the exams several times by only a few points. Districts would recommend students for the appeals process, and the commissioner would decide on each appeal after reviewing recommendations from regional panels of educators.

Grades, attendance records, completion of MCAS remedial activities, and other factors would be weighed in the appeals process. The school board is slated to vote on the proposal by early next year.

The commissioner said his proposal would not lower the state's commitment to high standards. "We can't turn a blind eye to students who have otherwise shown they can meet this standard, but for whatever reason cannot do it on the MCAS," Mr. Driscoll said in a statement.

A committee that included superintendents, the board of education president, teachers' union representatives, business leaders, and parents provided input on the draft proposal.

—John Gehring

Vol. 21, Issue 5, Page 26

Published in Print: October 3, 2001, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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