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.

cause and effect

Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
City Year corps member doing service in a ninth-grade algebra classroom at Denver’s North High School. From left: student Alaya Martinez, corps member Patrick Santino and student Dorian Medina.

From when the first students arrive until the last ones leave, eight young adults in white AmeriCorps T-shirts are a constant presence at Denver’s North High, a comprehensive high school where “Viking Pride” has not traditionally translated to academic success.

The corps members, part of a program called City Year, help run North’s social justice and writing clubs, hold kids accountable for their attendance and behavior, and team up with teachers to make math and literacy skills stick with ninth-graders.

All of that could vanish next year. President Donald Trump is set to propose slashing the AmeriCorps program from the federal budget, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. That would cost more than 11,000 schools support that they use to help students who’ve fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs.

On a recent morning, North High School Principal Scott Wolf watched a City Year corps member pull four struggling students out of an algebra classroom and into a hallway, where he sat with a whiteboard explaining how to identify the intersection points of two variable equations.

“A student in those classrooms, they may otherwise just be checked out, sitting there not knowing what to do,” Wolf said. “The corps members allow us to provide supports we could not otherwise offer our kids. Our students open up and can relate to them.”

AmeriCorps has been threatened before, but members and supporters have good reason to fear this time could be different. President Trump has promised significant cuts to government programs, and Republicans control Congress and can easily sign off on them.

The prospect of the elimination of federal funding has brought uncertainty to the 80,000 working AmeriCorps members and the schools and communities that rely on them. It has also mobilized the organization’s leadership and supporters to make their case to Congress that the relatively modest investment — just .03 percent of the federal budget — is worth it.

“We are prepared for this,” said Morris Price, vice president and executive director of City Year Denver, which works in nine city schools. “We have to make a case every year anyway. Now we have to make that case not just at the local level but at the congressional level, of the impact we have. We can’t get lazy. This reminds us of that.”

The proposed cuts target the Corporation for National and Community Service, a $1 billion-a-year agency that finances programs run by AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, a volunteer organization for people over 55.

About half of the agency’s grant funding goes to education-related work, officials said, making it a significant player in school improvement efforts across the country. Its programs include City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, the National College Advising Corps and a school-based foster grandparent program through Senior Corps.

“We are lucky that for more than 50 years, successive administrations of both parties have engaged with this concept of national service,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We know the best solutions come from outside Washington where ordinary citizens are doing extraordinary things.”

That federal support is leveraged to raise money from other sources, including private foundations, school districts, universities and colleges, and corporations. The end result is an additional $1.25 billion — more than the federal contribution, according to the agency.

AmeriCorps, however, has long been in the sights of conservative budget hawks and those who don’t believe it’s the government’s business to subsidize public service. (Corps members are not volunteers. They receive a stipend to help with living expenses, health insurance, and another $5,800 after the completion of each year to pay for additional education or to help pay off student loans.)

Blue Engine teaching assistant Alexandra DiAddezio helps 10th-grade geometry students with a project.

In cities ranging from New York to Denver and Memphis to Detroit, roughly 3,000 City Year corps members work alongside teachers and school leaders in long-struggling, high-poverty schools.

At Denver’s Manual High School, which is trying to reinvent itself yet again after a series of reforms, City Year corps members are integrated into all aspects of school life, principal Nick Dawkins said.

In addition to logging 875 hours helping students with literacy and math this year, corps members have surprised teachers with coffee and donuts, served free breakfast to students, and played chess and Monopoly with kids during tutoring, Dawkins said.

Part of the philosophy of City Year is that corps members — 18 to 25 years old — are not far removed from school themselves, allowing them to forge stronger relationships.

“In a tighter budget picture, I would hate to see programs like this go away,” Dawkins said. “I just think they are great kids and are great for school culture.”

In some cities, the possibility of losing funding for programs is throwing plans into question.

In Memphis, the school district is piloting an after-school tutoring program launched through City Year. Now in two Memphis schools, it is designed to grow to five schools and 50 AmeriCorps members by next school year.

Project director Karmin-Tia Greer said it’s too soon to tell what gutting AmeriCorps would mean for students in Memphis. Currently, AmeriCorps provides about 25 percent of the project’s funding.

“We hope that Congress will continue to support AmeriCorps, which has shown to positively impact students and schools in a cost-effective way,” she said.

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, more than 250 City Year corps members serve in 24 public schools with about 13,000 total students, officials said. AmeriCorps members have also served in the city’s community schools and through programs like Blue Engine, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Teach for America, whose corps members use stipends to help pay for their master’s degree programs.

Through another AmeriCorps program, Citizen Schools, 41 corps members act as teaching fellows in high-needs middle schools in Harlem and Brooklyn, where they also help mobilize community partners to volunteer, said Wendy Lee, executive director of Citizen Schools NY.

“Our entire operating model is based on having AmeriCorps service members in schools,” Lee said. If funding were cut, she said, “We’d either have to rethink staffing or rethink the way our model is delivered.”

As AmeriCorps staff and supporters make their case to Congress, they will point to results.

A 2015 study examining three years of educational outcomes in 22 cities found that schools that partner with City Year were up to three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments.

In Denver, three-quarters of the schools with City Year corps members have moved up in the city’s rating system. That includes North High School, where Wolf, the principal, credited City Year for helping with the turnaround.

Brittanyanne Cahill, 26, who is in her second year of City Year Denver service, reports similar progress at the Hill Campus of Arts and Science.

The suburban Atlanta native majored in special education in college, did a stint student teaching, signed on as a corps member at Hill last year and came back this year as a “senior corps member” mentoring first-year corps members and working with students.

“My eyes have been opened,” she said. “There is so much hardship. Schools around the country are not able to provide the support that all students need to succeed.”

Eric Gorski reported from Denver and Cassi Feldman reported from New York. Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman in Memphis contributed reporting.

'making american education great again'

Betsy DeVos, reportedly opposed to rolling back protections for transgender students, defends the changes

If Education Secretary Betsy DeVos opposed rolling back protections for transgender students behind the scenes this week, she wasn’t letting it show Thursday when she spoke to many of the country’s staunchest conservatives.

“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach, to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal government approach, top-down approach, to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level,” DeVos said.

“I have made clear from the moment I have been in this job that it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can,” she continued. “And also to provide students, parents, and teachers with more flexibility around how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

The remarks, which DeVos made at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, came the day after the Trump administration officials rescinded federal guidance instructing schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice. The New York Times reported that DeVos — who faced tough questions in her confirmation hearing about her support for gay rights — had opposed the changes, but lost a power struggle with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.

DeVos’s statement about the changes on Wednesday emphasized that she was committed to “protecting all students, including LGBTQ students.” States, districts, and schools that have established their own protections for transgender students will be able to continue to enforce those.

But some see the changes as an unnecessary blow to students vulnerable to bullying and whose rights to spaces like bathrooms aren’t specifically protected in many parts of the country.

“Supports for transgender students in K-12 schools change and save lives, and hurt no one,” Dr. Eliza Byard, the head of GLSEN, an advocacy group focused on the rights of gay students in schools, said in a statement.