score scrutiny

Charter school where English scores spiked scored own state exams

The New York City charter school that made the largest gains on state English tests also made an unprecedented decision to grade its own students’ exams.

English scores surged at Teaching Firms of America Charter School this year, with proficiency rates doubling from nearly 20 percent in 2014 to nearly 40 percent this year — a crucial one for the school to prove itself. Meanwhile, the school also opted out of an external scoring system meant to curb score inflation and bring charter school scoring in line with how exams from district schools are graded.

No one has accused the Brooklyn school of improper testing or grading practices. State officials say they have not received any complaints of cheating; city officials said a monitor visited the school during the tests to ensure compliance with testing rules; and the school’s math scores actually fell.

Founding principal Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II said he was confident that the English gains are an accurate reflection of how far his students have come.

“The growth is the result of authentic instruction,” he said. “That’s what happens when you don’t do test prep.”

Still, Teaching Firms’ unique position as the only school to grade its own state tests this year raises questions about why charter schools are not held to the same scoring standards as other schools in the city.

All New York City schools are responsible for scanning multiple-choice answers into a centralized data system. To ensure consistent scoring and prevent cheating, the city has long kept district schools from scoring their own students’ written responses, instead requiring that schools send teachers to centralized scoring centers to grade tests without knowledge of who took them.

Charter schools, the privately run but publicly funded schools that are exempt from some state regulations, aren’t allowed to participate. They are considered their own districts by the State Education Department and therefore have to handle their own scoring.

But for years, the city’s charter school sector has run a program that mimics the district’s and includes a third-party vendor to monitor the grading in real time. Schools invariably opt in so that their all-important scores aren’t vulnerable to challenges.

“Most charters are going to jump at joining the consortium because it’s a way to both have credibility in your scores, but also ease your mind that there are professionals who know how to do this,” said Constance Bond, executive director of St. Hope Leadership Academy, a charter school in Harlem.

Id-Din said he decided to allow his staff to score students’ answer sheets because he wanted teachers to better understand the state’s test-development and grading process and because it saved money for the school.

The choice was above-board, he said, because state regulations leave charter schools free to decide how to score their students’ tests.

“We took advantage of what every other school like ours can take advantage of,” said Id-Din, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s informal reader advisory board.

Still, no other charter school scored its own tests, according to the New York City Charter School Center, which sponsors the test scoring consortium that allows schools to outsource their scoring duties. “To the best of my knowledge, no school has self-scored other than Teaching Firms” in the decade since the consortium was created, said James Merriman, the head of the Charter Center.

Teaching Firms’ unilateral decision to score its own tests also reveals a new gap in the state’s ability to oversee charter schools. Although city charter schools have not traditionally opted to grade their own tests, the Teaching Firms case shows that schools are allowed to do so without oversight.

The city education department, which directly oversees TFOA and recently vowed to work proactively to stamp out academic impropriety, declined to comment on the school’s decision. A spokesman confirmed that the department sent monitors to the school during testing but did not oversee the school’s grading process.

Teaching Firms is under pressure to convince the department that it should remain open. In 2014, less than one in five third-grade students earned an English score indicating proficiency. The scores were low enough that city reviewers refused to renew the school’s charter for a full five years, and instead gave it just over two years to show improvement or face closure.

The latest test results indicate that Teaching Firms students are making fast progress in English, though not in math. While the average proficiency rate at city charter schools inched up from 28 percent to 29 percent in English, the students who were in TFOA’s third-grade class in 2014 saw their proficiency rate shoot up 30 points this year. The school took a step back on the math tests, with its proficiency rate dropping from 28 percent to 22 percent.

Sol Stern, a contributing editor for City Journal who has written about test security issues for more than a decade, said those English gains appeared to deserve further scrutiny.

“It could be the students are just starting out behind,” Stern said. “But it happens so rarely that it just doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.”

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.