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Urban Educators' Conference to Focus on Testing, Common Core, and ELLs

Milwaukee

Hundreds of superintendents, academic officers, and other district leaders from some of the nation's largest school districts are gathering here over the next five days to discuss strategies and swap ideas on building leadership in urban schools, increasing achievement for urban students, addressing the unique needs of English-language learners, and more.

This year's annual conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington-based organization that represents 67 of the nation's big-city school districts, will also shine a spotlight on two of the major challenges facing urban schools: supporting the academic needs of young men of color and testing. Both have generated significant debate and attention of late. 

The conference—under the banner "Fresh Water. Fresh Thinking in Urban Education"—will also turn attention to the Common Core State Standards, urban principals, teacher and administrator evaluations, and ELLs, with multiple sessions and panels on each of the aforementioned topics. 

"These are all issues that are in front of us," said Michael Casserly, the organization's executive director.

Wednesday's official conference opening was preceded by a one-and-a half-day series of workshops organized to bring attention to strategies and resources for improving achievement for young men of color. 

Those pre-conference workshops and seminars featured educators from the University of Illinois, Chicago, Ohio State University, and Clemson University, along with facilitators from the council. Among the issues they explored: the social and emotional needs of boys of color, using data to develop and guide interventions, and increasing the percentage of those students who take Advanced Placement courses. (Panels throughout the main conference will also address some of those topics.)

District officials also provided feedback on the progress made toward implementing the tenets of a July pledge when 60 of them signed onto President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. 

"My Brother's Keeper" aims to improve the educational outcomes for minority boys. The number of participating districts has now risen 61, with New York City joining since the original declaration was made. 

The council will also hold a special town hall centered on testing on Friday, Oct. 24. The event, hosted by National Public Radio education correspondent Claudio Sanchez, will be streamed live on the internet. 

Those expected to participate are: Kaya Henderson, the schools chancellor in the District of Columbia; Valeria Silva, superintendent in St. Paul, Minn.; Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers; Jomoke Hinton Hodge, a school board member from California's Oakland Unified School District and the council's chairwoman; Marc Tucker, the CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy; and Jaxs Goldsmith, a student at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee. 

The amount of time students spend on tests has been under intense scrutiny in recent months. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a back-to-school letter in August, called for an honest conversation about it. 

The council has focused heavily in the past year on researching the quality and quantity of assessments given in its member districts. Last week, the organization and the Council of Chief State School Officers announced that they planned to review the vast number of state and district tests that are currently being given in public schools, and work toward removing those that are redundant.

(The Large Countywide and Suburban School District Consortium, which represents 16 school districts across the country, has also raised concerns about the frequency and abundance of testing in schools.)

Using preliminary data from a year-long testing study on its constituent member districts, the council found that students, on average, took "113 standardized tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade," the organization said last week. Eleventh graders spent up to 27 days a year taking tests and 5th graders about five days, on average, doing so, according to the council. 

The organization is still combing through the data, and the final report will be released in the coming months, Casserly said.

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