Shelby County Schools

With hit and miss results, administrators ask for another year with test predictors

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Colonial Middle School eighth graders practice taking the writing assessment online.

Shelby County Schools administrators want to continue using for another year a testing program that attempts to determine how well students will perform on state tests.

That’s despite principals’ and teachers’ concerns that the program, Discovery Education, can sometimes give “way off” results that can grossly alter the year’s curriculum. Tennessee legislators could also scrap TCAP, the state test Discovery Education was designed to predict, by the end of this year.

Several of the district’s schools face the threat of being taken over by the state after producing dismally-low test scores for several years in a row. Test predictors have been heavily used in recent years to avoid that fate.

After administrators advocated for a one year contract extension of Discovery Education during a board meeting Tuesday, board members were presented with the option of finding another vendor or not using any testing system. The majority of the board members indicated they will likely vote to extend the contract at its next meeting in August.

Discovery Education is given to students throughout the district three times a year in written or digital form.  Teachers and principals use the results to design curriculum and figure out which students need extra attention throughout the year. If the vast majority of a third grade teacher’s students scored high on the reading portion of Discovery Education but low in the math portion, the teacher will spend the next quarter emphasizing math, for example.

Administrators say Discovery Education is usually 72 to 84 percent accurate in predicting how well a student will do on the TCAP.

“We feel that’s strong,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer. “It accurately can inform teachers of student mastery and areas that need to be retaught.”

But at least one principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his job, said the program was “way off” in predicting how well his school would do during a previous school year. It left the teachers with disappointing results and the risk of their evaluations being damaged, he said.

The district, like most in Tennessee, received a surprising blow earlier this spring when the Tennessee General Assembly voted to delay the PARCC assessment for a year and put out another request for proposal. Several legislators felt the state was moving too fast with the new test that would hold high stakes for teachers.

While testing students is a necessity for the district, board member Teresa Jones raised concern Tuesday that using a test that isn’t Common Core or PARCC (Partnership for  Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) -aligned could be a “waste of time” for the district’s students, teachers and principals.

The district participated in several test-runs of the online assessment, bought new computers and expanded its wi-fi network in preparation for PARCC.

Knowing PARCC will not be used in 2014-15, Hopson said Tuesday, does not negate the necessity for the district to have a test that gauges where students are academically.

Since the students will be taking the TCAP in the spring of 2015 and Discovery Education is used to predict performance on that test, Hopson argued it was the district’s best course of action this fall.

The last contract cost the district more than $800,000.

While the future of Discovery Education has yet to be determined, the Shelby County Schools board voted unanimously to expand the use of Istation, another testing tool that predicts literacy test scores, to all of its schools this fall. That program costs around $1 million.  Teachers can use the program, which features lesson plans and interactive quizzes, throughout the year.

The program was used last year in some schools that face especially challenging circumstances like Sharpe Elementary where 70 percent of its students were reading below grade.

“I feel that Istation has made us more aware of where our students were reading, and it holds the entire school more accountable,” said Stephanie Gatewood, who is the school’s family services specialist. “The most powerful element is the real time data, and the ability to drill down into the students’ level of literacy. Mandating that all schools use Istation would be a very wise move for the district: it’s a powerful tool.”

While recognizing that IStation works, Hopson also said he’s aware that people say students are tested too much, but the district has to have a way to assess student performance.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at [email protected] and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chalkbeattn.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news: http://tn.chalkbeat.org/newsletter/

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

lingering debate

Drop TNReady scores from teacher evaluations, urge Shelby County leaders

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
From left: Commissioners Reginald Milton, Van Turner and David Reaves listen during a meeting in Memphis of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The governing board this week urged state lawmakers to strip TNReady scores from teacher evaluations.

Just as students have begun taking Tennessee’s new standardized test, Shelby County officials are calling on state leaders to back off of using those scores to evaluate teachers.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for Memphis schools, voted unanimously on Monday to urge  the state to use TNReady results as only a “diagnostic” tool. Currently, the board says, state scores are being used as a punitive evaluation of both teachers and students.

The board’s call gets to the heart of a debate that has lingered since a 2010 state law tied standardized test results to teacher evaluations. That was several years before TNReady was introduced last year as a new measuring stick for determining how Tennessee students — and their teachers — are doing.

TNReady testing, which began this week and continues through May 5, has intensified that debate. The new test is aligned to more rigorous academic standards that Tennessee is counting on to improve the state’s national ranking.

But Shelby County’s board is questioning whether reforms initiated under Tennessee’s 2010 First to the Top plan are working.

“While giving off the appearance of a better education, this type of teaching to the test behavior actually limits the amount of quality content in deference to test taking strategies,” the board’s resolution reads.

The board also cites “unintended consequences” to the teaching profession as nearly half of Tennessee’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Record numbers of quality teachers are leaving the teaching profession and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers due to the TN standards imposed in regards to standardized testing,” the resolution reads.

It’s true that school districts statewide struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers in some subject areas. But there’s little evidence to support that incorporating test scores in evaluations is the primary reason teachers are leaving the profession.

It’s also unlikely that Tennessee will back off of its teacher evaluation model, even as some states have recently abandoned the practice. The model is baked into reforms that the state initiated through two gubernatorial administrations to improve both teacher and student performance.


Want education equity? Make sure your teachers feel valued, say lawmakers


PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Commissioner David Reaves

Shelby County’s resolution was introduced by Commissioner David Reaves, a former Memphis school board member who says he hears a “continual outcry” from teachers and parents over high-stakes testing.

“Allow the local (school district) to assess and classify teachers and use the test results as a tool, not as a stick,” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

In Tennessee, test scores in some form count for 35 to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. TNReady scores currently count 10 percent but, as the state settles into its new test, that will gradually increase to 25 percent by 2018-19.

Classroom observations and evaluations did play a factor in retention rates for effective teachers in a 2014 study by the Tennessee Department of Education before the transition to TNReady. Where teachers reported consistent and objective classroom observations, effective teachers were more likely to stay.

State and local teacher surveys also differ on the quality of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system known as TEAM, which mostly relies on classroom observations.

In Shelby County Schools, exit surveys show issues like levels and stability of teacher pay — not test scores in their evaluations — are cited most often by teachers leaving the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the school board last month that most Shelby County teachers find the state’s evaluation system unfair, but the same majority think their own score is fair.

Another survey by the Tennessee Department of Education suggests that satisfaction with the state’s evaluation system is on the rise as teacher feedback continues to be incorporated.

The Shelby County board, which oversees funding for Tennessee’s largest district, is sending its resolution to Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, and the Tennessee General Assembly. Below is the full text: