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.

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Take Two

One year after TNReady collapse, Tennessee unveils plan to test online again

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

After last year’s mostly failed transition to online testing, Tennessee will try again next year. And this time, state officials say they “feel confident” that the new online platform will work.

But unlike last year, the state will stagger the transition. All high schools will administer the test online in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the state’s test on paper to its youngest students.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the new game plan for TNReady testing on Thursday after sharing the timeline with superintendents the day before.

“Given the challenges we experienced last year, we took a step back this year and have worked very closely with our vendor, Questar, to create an online product that is right for Tennessee,” McQueen wrote to superintendents. “We are proud of the progress that has been made and feel confident in the strength of the Nextera platform.”

Many districts are expected to get a head start and use the option to administer the high school test this spring. McQueen reported that more than half of the state’s high schools participated in online practice tests last fall, and that feedback was “generally very positive.”

Districts have until Feb. 15 to decide whether to take this year’s test online, and testing will start on April 17.

McQueen has said repeatedly that Tennessee is committed to transitioning to online testing, even after its platform collapsed last year on the first day of testing. The test maker later acknowledged that its platform did not have enough servers for the volume of students online as most of the state tried to make the shift for all grades.

The commissioner reiterated the state’s commitment this week. “It is our responsibility to ensure Tennessee students are prepared to meet the demands of postsecondary and the workforce, and online readiness is a part of that effort,” she wrote. “… Online is the future for our students.”

However, McQueen said that the transition plan isn’t set in stone.

We will continue to look at proof points along the way to be sure we are setting up districts and schools for success using the online platform,” she wrote.

Last year’s failed online rollout was followed by the test maker’s inability to deliver printed test materials, prompting McQueen to cancel tests for grades 3-8 and fire North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.

This year’s test has several differences from 2016:

  • It was designed by Questar, a Minnesota-based testing company that Tennessee hired last July;
  • It will take place during a single testing window, in April 17 to May 5, rather than also having testing in February.
  • It will be slightly shorter, with shorter sections.

breaking

‘ILEARN’ test would replace ISTEP in 2019 under House GOP plan

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A key Republican lawmaker is calling for Indiana’s next state test to be known as “ILEARN,” finally abolishing the hated ISTEP in time for the 2018-19 school year.

But the new test, should the plan move forward and become law, might not look that different to students and teachers.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, filed House Bill 1003 in the Indiana General Assembly Wednesday setting out details for a new state testing system, whose name stands for “Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network.” Behning championed the so-called “kill ISTEP” bill last spring, which came out of complaints about the test’s history of scoring glitches and delays.

Behning’s bill is the first to outline a plan to replace the test, and it still faces a number of legislative hurdles. But as House Education Committee chairman, Behning has considerable influence.

“ILEARN” would be similar to recommendations released late last year by a committee of lawmakers and educators charged with helping create a new test. That committee called for mostly tweaks to the ISTEP testing system, not an overhaul as some educators had favored.

His plan would include a few changes. In addition to continuing to test students in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school in math and English, the bill would require Indiana schools to give high school students a “nationally recognized” college or career readiness test. That test could be an exam for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, a college entrance exam, or another test approved by the Indiana State Board of Education.

The bill would also have the state exams given in one testing period at the end of the year, rather than the current two periods in late winter and spring.

In order to graduate, the state would go back to requiring high school students to pass end-of-course assessments in English, Algebra I and science, not a 10th-grade test like what the state introduced in 2016.

Tests in social studies would also no longer be required.

The bill would also require that scores be returned to the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1 of the year the test was given. It also says the Indiana Department of Education would be able to make rules that encourage Indiana teachers to grade the writing questions.

Originally, Behning called for ISTEP to formally end after it was given in 2017, but because of the challenges of creating a new test in such a short time window, he and fellow Republicans in the Senate have said the current ISTEP needs to stick around for another year or so. His plan would have ILEARN given for the first time in 2019.

Below, find some of our top stories over the past year on the ever-changing exam, where we explain how Indiana got to this point. You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.