Upon further review

Westminster schools didn’t improve enough to dodge sanctions, state finds

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

State officials have denied Westminster Public Schools’ plea to reconsider the district’s performance rating, putting the district one step closer to facing consequences for low performance.

Colorado Department of Education staff presented the final ratings to the state Board of Education Thursday. The state notified district officials earlier this week that the evidence they had presented to request a higher rating included good data, but was insufficient.

“Though some of the data provided showed some progress and promise over the past five years, comprehensively the data did not present a compelling case of performance that warrants a higher accreditation rating,” state officials wrote in a letter to the district this week.

As it stands, the rating means Westminster Public Schools is one of five districts that will face state sanctions in the coming months after five low performance ratings from the state. This group of districts would be the first to face sanctions under the state’s accountability system.

Westminster officials say they plan to appeal the state’s decision.

“We are disappointed by the decision and will be vigorously following all avenues available to us,” said Pam Swanson, Westminster schools superintendent. “We don’t think the Colorado Department of Education fully considered or responded to all of the information that was submitted in our request for reconsideration. Importantly, the decision doesn’t reflect the fact that none of our schools face sanctions.”

The district had requested that the state reconsider its most recent rating in part because the district has been working on switching the 9,500-student district to a competency-based model. Under the model, the district did away with placements based only on age and instead groups students by what they know. The approach also requires students to prove they’ve mastered certain competencies before passing onto the next level.

Westminster officials worry that because students must be grouped by age for state tests, the accountability system might not be fairly evaluating their progress. The district presented data from its own internal tests and from a review by a third-party they hired to assess the model.

The data, especially from 2010 through 2014, showed positive trends, the state agreed. But in 2016, state officials pointed out that several schools saw a decline.

The state also took time in the letter to address some of the district’s concerns with the accountability system, countering some statements made by Westminster officials, including on how often the standards have changed in the last several years. The state standards have “evolved,” officials stated in the letter, but districts were given years to make the transition.

Specifically addressing the district’s competency based system, state officials noted at several points that there may be more to learn from the system and how it works with the state’s testing.

“The department recognizes that the district has been working to implement a Competency Based System,” the letter to the district states. “Your input around assessment options has been shared and is being considered. But we welcome further conversation.”

year two

Tennessee high schoolers post higher test scores, but some subjects remain a struggle

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen presents 2017 high school test scores to the State Board of Education.

High school students in Tennessee saw their state test scores rise in 2017, the second year that a new test aligned to the Common Core standards were given in the state.

The increases were modest on average, but sharp for some of the students who have historically struggled most. Just one in five poor students scored at the lowest-level on the ninth-grade English exam, for example, compared to one in three last year.

But in most courses, especially in math, students continued to fall far below the state’s expectations. Even as the state estimates that 11,000 more students met the English proficiency bar this year, two thirds of students still fell below it. And in two advanced math courses, scores actually declined slightly.

The upward trajectory across most subjects puts Tennessee in line with other states that have seen their scores plummet in the first year of new exams, but then rise incrementally afterwards as students and teachers adjust to tougher standards.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen touted the results Thursday during a brief presentation to the State Board of Education in Nashville.

“These results are encouraging because they show that we’re on the right track,” McQueen said. “As we have moved our standards forward, our teachers and students are meeting those expectations.”

She singled out improvements with historically underserved groups, particularly students with disabilities, and a reduction in the percentage of students performing at the lowest achievement level.

“This positive movement is showing we are taking seriously the work we’re doing with all of our student groups,” McQueen said.

High schoolers scored best on their science exams, which was expected since Tennessee has not yet switched to more rigorous science standards. Those standards will reach classrooms in the fall of 2018.

The statewide scores are the first batch to be released. District- and school-level high school scores come next in August, while results for students in grades 3-8 are due out this fall. Grades 3-8 took TNReady for the first time last school year after their 2016 exams were scuttled amid technical failures.

 

previewing TNReady

Why Tennessee’s high school test scores, out this week, matter more — and less — than usual

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

When scores dropped last year for most Tennessee high school students under a new state test, leaders spoke of “setting a new baseline” under a harder assessment aligned to more rigorous standards.

This week, Tennesseans will see if last year’s scores — in which nearly three-quarters of high schoolers performed below grade level — was in fact just a reset moment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning to release the highly anticipated second year of high school scores under TNReady, which replaced the state’s TCAP tests in 2015-16. (Students in grades 3-8 will get TNReady scores for the first time this fall; last year, their tests were canceled because of a series of testing failures.)

Here’s what you need to know about this week’s data dump, which will focus on statewide scores.

1. Last year’s low scores weren’t a big surprise.

Not only was it the first time Tennessee students took TNReady, it also was the first time that they were being tested on new academic standards in math and language arts known as the Common Core, which reached Tennessee classrooms in 2012.

Other states that switched to Common Core-aligned exams also saw their scores plummet. In New York, for example, the proportion of students who scored proficient or higher in reading dropped precipitously in 2013 during the first year of a new test for grades 3-8.

McQueen sought last year to prepare Tennessee for the same experience. After all, she said, the state was moving away from a multiple-choice test to one that challenges students’ higher-order thinking skills. Plus, while Tennessee students had been posting strong scores on the state’s own exam, they had struggled on national tests such as the ACT, raising questions about whether the previous state test was a good measure of students’ skills.

“We expected scores to be lower in the first year of a more rigorous assessment,” McQueen said after only 21 percent of high school students scored on or above grade level in math, while 30 percent tested ready in English and reading.

2. It’s expected that this year’s scores will rise … and it will be a bad sign if they don’t.

Over and over, state officials assured Tennesseans that 2016 was just the start.

“[We] expect that scores will rebound over time as all students grow to meet these higher expectations — just as we have seen in the past,” McQueen said.

She was referring to the state’s shift to Diploma Standards in 2009, when passing rates on end-of-course tests dropped by almost half. But in subsequent years, those scores rose steadily in a “sawtooth pattern” that has been documented over and over when states adopt new assessments and students and teachers grow accustomed to them.

That includes New York, where after the worrisome results in 2013, the percentage of students passing started inching up the following year, especially in math.

In Tennessee, this year’s high school scores will provide the first significant data point in establishing whether the state is on the same track. Higher scores would put the state on an upward trajectory, and suggest that students are increasingly proficient in the skills that the test is measuring. Scores that remain flat or go down would raise questions about whether teachers and students are adjusting to more rigorous standards.

3. There’s lots more scores to come.

This week’s statewide high school scores will kick off a cascade of other TNReady results that will be released in the weeks and months ahead.

Next comes district- and school-level high school scores, which will be shared first with school systems before being released to the public. That’s likely to happen in August.

In the fall, Tennessee will release its scores for students in grades 3-8, who took TNReady for the first time this year after the 2016 testing debacle. While testing went better this year, the state’s new testing company needed extra time to score the exams, because additional work goes into setting “cut scores” each time a new test is given.

A group of educators just concluded the process of reviewing the test data to recommend what scores should fall into the state’s four new categories for measuring performance: below grade level, approaching grade level, on grade level, or mastered. The State Board of Education will review and vote on those recommendations next month.

4. This year’s scores are lower stakes than usual, but that probably won’t last.

For years, Tennessee has been a leader in using test scores to judge students, teachers, and schools. Like most states, it uses the data to determine which schools are so low-performing that they should be closed or otherwise overhauled. It also crunches scores through a complicated “value-added” algorithm designed to assess how much learning that teachers contribute to their students — an approach that it has mostly stuck with as value-added measures have fallen out of favor across the nation. And unusually, the state exam scores are also supposed to factor into final student grades, this year counting for 10 percent.

But the rocky road to the new tests has temporarily diminished how much the scores count. Because preliminary scores arrived late this spring, most districts opted to grade students on the basis of their schoolwork alone.

And because of the testing transition, the scores won’t be given as much weight in this year’s teacher evaluations — an adjustment that lawmakers made to alleviate anxiety about the changes. Test scores will contribute only 10 percent to teachers’ ratings. Depending on the subject, that proportion is supposed to rise to between 15 and 25 percent by 2018-19.