Anatomy of a lesson

At Pueblo charter school, teaching literacy hasn’t changed much with new standards

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Eighth grade reading teacher Leslie Fitzgerald, left, discusses a short story with her class Thursday. One discussion question: How did the mother's narrator compare to other adult figures in earlier short stories the students have read?

The end of a three week unit on characters, plots, and themes is near in Leslie Fitzgerald’s eighth grade reading class at the Pueblo School of Arts and Sciences. On Thursday students began reading their last short story, “With Bert and Ray, told by William,” in a collection Throwing Shadows by E.L. Konigsburg.

The charter school class is using the anthology of short stories to understand the most basic literary techniques. These lessons may seem strikingly similar to lessons of yesteryear, even though this is the first year schools are supposed to be teaching to a new set of standards. For some Colorado districts, the new standards have meant a complete instructional overhaul.

But at this Pueblo arts and sciences school, teachers began exploring the standards in 2010 and found that in most subjects they had to make only slight shifts, said Natalie Allen, head of school.

Fitzgerald’s students are a bit excited after returning from a districtwide choir competition. As they tumble into their seats and unpack their shared tubs of books, reading journals, and workbooks, Fitzgerald reads aloud to them. The story of “Bert and Ray” begins with the narrator explaining his family’s current plight: His father has died of alcoholism and his mother, known as “Ma,” has been left with plenty of debt, including two months of dentist bills.

Fitzgerald usually begins the group reading aloud, she said after the lesson. “I want the students to hear fluent reading.” It also helps ensure that all students are in the same place when the class breaks for discussion. And it doesn’t take Fitzgerald long before she’s prodding her students about unfamiliar vocabulary words and themes.

To pay off the dentist bills, William tells the readers, Ma has decided to have a garage sale. William’s father was a bit of a pack rat and collected guns and other hunting paraphernalia including duck decoys. Fitzgerald stops to ask her students if they know anyone like William’s father. Does anyone in your family collect obscure objects? The students nod and Fitzgerald shares her own experience of a family member collecting hundreds of National Geographic magazines.

A common reading instruction technique is to ask students to connect the text they’re reading to their own personal lives. However, Fitzgerald says, part of an instructional shift aligned to the new Colorado Academic Standards requires students to go beyond personal connections and connect what they read to other texts. She does this next.

As the story continues, Ma has priced all the items and opened her home to buyers. Among her first customers is a pair of antique collectors, Bert and Ray. The collectors offer Ma exactly what she asked for the decoy ducks and are quickly on their way. Bert and Ray tell Ma to invite them back whenever she has another sale — they’ll be there.

Fitzgerald stops again to ask her students what that might mean. Several students suggest Ma might have priced the decoys too low. Fitzgerald affirms their inferences. Despite devaluing the decoy ducks, Ma and William make enough money to pay off their dentist bills and get more work done.

One day, on their way home from the dentist, William recognizes Bert and Ray’s shop by a sign hanging outside. The sign includes the word “proprietor,” which Fitzgerald stops to quiz the class on. “What does proprietor mean?” she asks the class. One student suggests it means “expert.” That’s a good guess, Fitzgerald said, but not quite. “What other clues from the text might be useful?”

Prepackaged vocabulary tests, as part of the Success For All literacy curriculum the school uses, have become increasingly more complex, Fitzgerald said after the lesson. In earlier editions of the program, students might have been asked to choose words from a bank to fill in sentences. Now, they might have to come up with a word on their own or find words being misused in sentences. The vocabulary tests are now three times as long.

William suggests he and his mother visit Bert and Ray, as the collectors had instructed them to do if they were ever near the shop. But Ma doesn’t want to. She believes it’s rude to “pay a call unexpected.” Fitzgerald stops here, after reading aloud for 15 minutes. What does that tell you about Ma, she asks? How does she compare to other adults in the previous short stories we’ve read, asks Fitzgerald?

Critics of Colorado’s new standards have often criticized what they say is an emphasis on shorter stories and non-fictional texts, as opposed to longer classic novels. But Fitzgerald said she has used novels and short stories interchangeably for years. She said using short stories makes it easier for students to draw comparisons and contrast themes and symbols as they begin exploring those literary devices.

After a brief discussion on Ma, Fitzgerald asks her students to stop and predict what will happen when William and Ma enter Bert and Ray’s shop. She also assigns the majority of what’s left in the short story, pages 122-136, for partner reading. It might seem like a lot for independent and partner reading, she said, but she assures her students they can do it. Her students will have a unit test next week.

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.


Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come


But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.