Ready for TNReady?

New TNReady test will be harder to ‘game,’ say education officials

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
This school year, Tennessee students are taking a new standardized test featuring open-ended questions, as well as traditional multiple-choice questions. The tests will also be administered online.

Test-taking strategies, such as “when in doubt, guess C,” soon will be obsolete in Tennessee, at least when it comes to the state’s end-of-year standardized assessments.

TNReady, the new math and English assessment for grades 3-11, is designed to go deeper than the bubble sheet tests of the past, and be “harder to game,” officials say, meaning that students won’t as easily get points for guessing.

The test also should convey more information about how well students are prepared for the world outside of school — by asking more questions about real-world scenarios and challenging students more than ever before.

“We’re moving into a better test that will provide us better information about how well our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters recently during sneak peek at some of the questions.

The questions are meant to require more than rote memorization, added Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of data and research.

“We recognize the way we have designed TNReady means this is not a test you can game,” she said.

Designed by North-Carolina-based Measurement Inc., TNReady will include several types of questions. Some questions take advantage of the online format and require students to use drag-and-drop tools. Others ask students to write short paragraphs explaining how they solved a problem. And still others are multiple choice, but allow students to select multiple answers. Altogether, the test not only will require students to remember facts they’ve memorized, and imitate procedures they’ve seen their teachers do, but show that they understand concepts on their own.

Tennessee began its transition to a new kind of test in 2010 when the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, with academic benchmarks that focus more on student understanding than on memorizing a formula or procedure that can get the right answer. The state was supposed to move in 2015 to the PARCC, a Common Core-aligned assessment shared by several states, but the legislature voted in 2014 to stick to its multiple-choice TCAP test while state education leaders searched for a test similar to the PARCC but designed exclusively for Tennessee students. In the meantime, several states have switched to tests aligned to the Common Core or similar standards, which are supposed to take aim at one of the oldest and most potent criticisms of tests: that they force teachers to “teach to the test” and focus unduly on memorizing facts and testing tricks that students promptly forget after completing the test.

“These tests have much more emphasis on student reasoning and depth of knowledge than one has seen in the past,” says Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Education and an adviser in developing similar tests in other states.

However, he notes the challenge of developing questions aimed at deeper learning that also can be graded in a timely manner.

“It’s not down to a science yet,” Briggs explained.

The benefit of multiple-choice tests is that they can be scored almost instantly. The downside is they don’t necessarily give insight into how a student knows the answer. “The challenge is, how do you get at a student’s reasoning with items that aren’t fully open-ended?” Briggs asked.

Ilana Horn, a mathematics education professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, said she recently looked through sample questions posted online for parents by the state Department of Education.

“Some of the questions hit the mark,” Horn said, adding that they required students to think deeply about mathematical concepts. She cited a math question for grades 3-5, requiring students to click on a grid to create a figure with an area of 18 square units. A student couldn’t answer correctly merely by memorizing the formula for area.

“If they learned math procedurally and you asked them what area is, they’d say length times width,” she said. “And when you showed them the figure and said, ‘Where’s the area?’ they would blink at you.”

But she said other questions — like one that asks students to choose the answers that round up to eight — still are too focused on procedure.

“The problem is, when kids memorize an equation just for a test, it doesn’t give them deep understandings of what they’re doing mathematically,” Horn said. “And then they forget.”

Although at least some TNReady questions will do a better job of telling teachers what their students know and how they know it, Horn said tests always will be imperfect measures of student learning and teacher quality because they also convey information about cultural backgrounds and poverty.

For example, even the math portion of TNReady will require more literacy skills than the old TCAP did — and how well a student can read and write depends in large part on what a student is exposed to before ever stepping foot in a classroom.

As for why students will need to be strong readers to do well on a math test, Briggs says the idea of what it means to be ready for college or a career is changing.

“Historically, there’s been an attempt to have as little writing as possible on math assessments. You didn’t want to mix up math and verbal skills,” he said. “But our conception of what it means to be mathematically proficient is changing. You have to communicate what you’re doing.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.