More than scores

Beyond test scores, Tennessee looks at how to evaluate districts and schools under ESSA

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns speaks during Wednesday's testing task force meeting, which largely focused on what measures besides test scores should be included in Tennessee's accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

As Tennessee education leaders draft a new plan to evaluate the state’s schools and districts, they’re trying to move beyond test scores.

But exactly which metrics to incorporate into the state’s new accountability equation are still very much in the air as the State Department of Education develops an accountability plan in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen put that challenge Wednesday to her 21-member testing task force of educators, politicians, and researchers — just one of several groups the state is consulting.

Passed by Congress last year, ESSA gives states more latitude in defining and measuring school and district success. While states still must report annual test scores, ESSA encourages choosing metrics that paint a fuller picture of what goes on inside schools.

“We do think we have a great moment and a great opportunity in Tennessee to really make a statement about our values,” Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns told task force members. “What are our values beyond test data?”

Here are factors that could soon be part of Tennessee’s accountability plan, and what task force members are saying about them.

What do you think? Which metrics would best help the state determine which districts and schools that are serving schools well, and which need interventions? Let us know in the comments below.

Discipline data

No consensus emerged on whether discipline data, like expulsion and suspension rates, should be used to grade districts and schools. But department officials and task force members insisted the issue needs to be addressed, even if it’s not part of the accountability system.

Kyle Southern, policy director for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), cited a University of Pennsylvania report showing that Tennessee suspended and expelled more students than any other state in the South — and that students of color are disproportionately affected.

Towns said she has been looking at discipline stats from across the state, especially in her home district in Knoxville.

“Frankly, some of the disparities around which subgroups are being most affected by suspensions, it’s shocking,” she said. “This is something that has very severe consequences when you talk about school-to-prison pipeline, dropout rates.”

Strengths: Data on suspensions and expulsions — and racial disparities — is easily accessible. Holding schools accountable for high numbers of suspensions and expulsion incentivizes alternatives, which would increase the amount of time students spend in school. Helping districts focus on discipline could improve school culture and equity across the state, as well as improve emotional supports for students.

Drawbacks: Districts report suspensions and expulsions differently. There’s the potential unintended consequence of schools not enforcing rules and being lenient on disruptive or unsafe behavior. And some schools and districts have more resources, such as guidance counselors and social workers, to help support students.

Chronic Absenteeism

Task force members were most adamant about including chronic absenteeism in the reboot of Tennessee’s accountability system, although they weren’t sure what the definition of chronic absenteeism should be.

Weakley County Schools Director Randy Frazier said students’ performance starts suffering from absences long before the courts consider them truant. “We know it’s an issue that affects instruction,” he said.

Pros: Research consistently shows a correlation between attendance and post-secondary success. Also, absenteeism gives insight into school culture and relationships in ways that other metrics can’t.

Cons: Absenteeism can be outside of schools’ control, and not all schools have access to support services that help ensure kids show up to schools.

A student social-emotional and learning survey

Tennessee districts already administer surveys around school climate to students and teachers. Department leaders asked task force members if districts and schools would want to be evaluated based on the results of a student survey about social and emotional supports, such as relationships with teachers and skills such as perseverance. Members answered that social and emotional learning conditions are important, but questioned how reliable a survey would be.

Pros: Social and emotional learning is linked not only to improved academic outcomes, but to improved conditions long after school, such as employment and happiness. It’s an untapped way to assess the non-academic factors at a school, such as relationships, that educators know are important.

Cons: Younger students might not understand the survey, and it might take a long time to develop one that can accurately capture both what a school does and how it feels for its students.

Early post-secondary options

About half of task force members said that early post-secondary measures — such as access to AP or IB courses and community college classes — should somehow be included in the accountability system. Towns listed a lot of questions to dig into if the state uses post-secondary opportunities as a metric: What counts as an early post-secondary opportunity? Should all opportunity be counted the same? And, since courses vary across schools and districts, how should performance in such courses be evaluated?

Pros: Expanding early post-secondary options aligns with the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to increase the number of students who finish some sort of postsecondary education.  Performing well in college prep or vocational courses is a strong indicator of success in college or careers. And being able to rack up college credits in high school saves students money.

Cons: Questions are plentiful about what “post-secondary” opportunities look like in elementary and middle schools, and what metrics could be used to measure them. Also, some schools can’t afford to offer many college preparatory or vocational courses, either because they don’t have enough students, lack funding, or both. Task force members want to avoid tracking wealthier students into different classes and opportunities than their less-affluent peers.

Access to highly effective teachers

Last fall, a State Department of Education report found that low-achieving students are less likely to have a teacher that scored well on their state teacher evaluation than their high-achieving peers — even though low-achieving students have more to gain from strong teaching. The department has earmarked access to quality teachers as a major equity issue.

Pros: Research shows that teachers have a significant impact on student performance, perhaps more than any other factor schools can control.

Cons: While there’s a consensus that effective teachers are important, not everyone agrees what a highly effective teacher is, and how that effectiveness can be measured. Some districts have an advantage in attracting good teachers, either because of the pay they can offer or because of geography: School systems near cities simply have a greater supply of teachers to choose from than rural districts.

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:

FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”