Testing Testing

Because of 100 percent passing rate, Tennessee creates new social studies test

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

This year, not a single Tennessee student failed their social studies or history assessment — even though more than half of students statewide failed exams for most other subjects.

State officials now say that the 100 percent passing rate is caused by score inflation and lax standards rather than social studies prowess. In coming school years, they hope that won’t be the case.

After more than a decade of neglect, the state has revamped social studies standards and the assessments that go with them. This year, students will take redesigned tests based on those standards, and the passing rate will probably drop. Because the standards are new, the test won’t impact students’ grades or be counted on schools’ 2014-2015 report card.

“In assessment design, there are lots of different decisions that affect the rigor and difficulty of the test and that affect the ultimate scoring,” said Emily Barton, the assistant commissioner of education in charge of the social studies revamp. Neither the cut scores–the minimum number of questions a student needs to answer correctly to pass the test– nor the standards had been revisited in more than a decade. If the cut score is too low, students can pass a test just by randomly guessing on every question.

“(The new test is) just going to be more rigorous because of the new standards, so consequently, I think it makes sense to expect that the rate of students scoring proficient or advanced will more than likely drop,” said Jared Myracle, a Gibson County Special School System administrator and former history and social studies teacher who helped develop the new standards. “I hope what happens, if and when scores decline, is that people would say, ‘Why did this happen? I hope that they’d look at the standards and realize that we can’t expect to perform 100 percent on an assessment that actually includes meaningful skills.”

The new standards are aligned to applicable literacy Common Core standards, and focus on analysis and making connections between different areas and time periods, and less on memorization, Myracle said. (The standards are not Common Core though — those standards are only for literacy and math.)

“Social studies will have to be much more than students gathering information from taking notes,” he said. “It should be a much more involved class, engaging with primary sources, speeches, and documents.”

The last time social studies standards, which apply to social studies in kindergarten through eighth grade and history and geography classes in high school, were updated was in 2002. Usually, standards are updated every six years but in 2008, in the midst of a math and literacy standards overhaul, social studies was overlooked, Myracle and Barton said. The TCAP for social studies and history was shorter than ones for other subjects, and cut scores ensured most students would pass.

That made social studies teachers feel their subject gets short shrift, said Mark Finchum, a social studies teacher at Jefferson County High School and the head of the Tennessee Council for Social Studies. Federal education guidelines tied to initiatives like Race to the Top focus on math and literacy, which often causes social studies to be almost entirely overlooked in younger grades, where schools focus on the exams whose results keep them open.

“At the beginning, when they first started all that testing, I was glad I didn’t have to do it,” Finchum said. “I was glad I was able to do what I needed to do, and not have to worry about all that other stuff,” he said, referring to standardized test preparation. But then, he said, he was faced with a common criticism of the accountability movement: whatever is tested is focused on more by administrators and students.

“That is why I’d like to see social studies get a good (End of Course) type of assessment,” Finchum said. “So that we can see social studies valued on the level that it should be.”

State officials also felt social studies was not getting a fair shot, and in 2012, began the process of making standards more rigorous. A task force studied standards from states considered to have the best. The new standards were adopted  by the board of education in 2013.

“Teachers from across the state for years had been telling us that they wanted us to look at the social studies standards,” Barton said. She pointed to the fact that far more students were proficient in U.S. History than English III. Students take both exams their junior year of high school. The majority fail English.  “So we knew there were a different level of expectations,” she said.

The Tennessean recently reported that Metro Nashville Schools was one of a handful of school systems across the state not buying new social studies textbooks, in favor of teacher-chosen online materials, although they said cost was not a factor. Tullahoma City Schools began to experiment with open-source social studies textbooks, online texts that can be easily updated, in 2013.

Social studies courses have also been restructured. For example, ninth graders used to be able to choose either geography, which includes more current events, or world history in the ninth grade. Now, both classes are combined into one.

Social studies teachers’ Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, scores should not be impacted by the shift in standards and assessments, since TVAAS is computed according to statewide trends.

Myracle said the change will ensure that a student doesn’t totally miss one subject or the other. Finchum is concerned with that shift, though, saying that he would prefer his students get a deeper understanding of one subject, rather than a shallow understanding of either.

Regardless, Finchum is always happy to see social studies appreciated, he said.

“Where do you learn about citizenship?” he said.  “Not in math class.”

The updated standards can be found here.

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.

Making the grade

TNReady scores are about to go out to Tennessee districts, but not all will make student report cards

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

The State Department of Education will start Monday to distribute the test score data that goes into students’ final report cards, but it won’t arrive in time for every district across the state.

That’s because some districts already have ended their school years, some won’t have time to incorporate TNReady grades before dismissing their students, and some missed the state’s first deadline for turning in testing materials.

“Our timelines for sharing TNReady scores are on track,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said Friday, noting that the schedule was announced last fall. “We have said publicly that districts will receive raw score data back in late May.”

Shelby County Schools is waiting to see when their scores arrive before making a decision. A spokeswoman said Tennessee’s largest district met all testing deadlines, and needs the scores by Monday to tabulate them into final grades. The district’s last day of school is next Friday.

School leaders in Nashville and Kingsport already have chosen to exclude the data from final grades, while Williamson County Schools is delaying their report cards.

A 2015 state law lets districts opt to exclude the data if scores aren’t received at least five instructional days before the end of the school year.

TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of this year’s final grades. As part of the transition to TNReady, the weight gradually will rise to between 15 and 25 percent (districts have flexibility) as students and teachers become more familiar with the new test.

The first wave of scores are being sent just weeks after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared this year’s testing a “success,” both on paper and online for the 24 districts that opted to test high school students online this year. Last year, Tennessee had a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

Tennessee test scores have been tied to student grades since 2011, but this is the first year that the state used a three-week testing window instead of two. Gast said the added time was to give districts more flexibility to administer their tests. But even with the added week, this year’s timeline was consistent with past years, she said.

Once testing ended on May 5, school districts had five days to meet the first deadline, which was on May 10, to return those materials over to Questar, the state’s new Minneapolis-based testing company.

School officials in Nashville said that wasn’t enough time.

“Due to the volume of test documents and test booklets that we have to account for and process before return for scoring, our materials could not be picked up before May 12,” the district said in a statement on Thursday.

Because districts turned in their testing materials at different times, the release of raw scores, will also be staggered across the next three weeks, Gast said.