Scores in

UPDATED: Urban districts score below statewide averages on new TNReady tests, with some bright spots

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

A new test hasn’t changed which Tennessee school districts are the top performers, and which districts struggle relative to the state as a whole.

The Tennessee Department of Education on Tuesday released district- and school-level TNReady scores from last school year while unveiling a redesigned online report card. The rollout follows last month’s release of statewide scores showing that the vast majority of high school students aren’t on track to be prepared for college. The new scores are only for high school students since Tennessee canceled its 3-8 tests in April following a series of technical and logistical snafus.

Across the state, scores were significantly down — a drop that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had warned was inevitable in the transition to more rigorous tests, designed to give a better snapshot of students’ readiness for college and career. The exception is science scores. The state is retaining older, easier tests for those subjects until new standards are phased in during the 2018-19 school year.

As in years past, most urban districts, which typically have a higher concentration of students from low-income households, had lower passing rates than the state as a whole on the 12 end-of-course tests.

McQueen reiterated Tuesday that educators shouldn’t be discouraged by the scores. “These scores show a student’s potential trajectory,” she said. “They are not a student’s destiny.”

While nearly three-quarters of students statewide and in urban districts failed most tests, Williamson County, an affluent suburb of Nashville, had a relatively even distribution of students scoring across the four levels. Still, scores for urban districts hewed close to the state’s in many instances, and in some cases, urban students did better than their statewide peers. Three out of Tennessee’s four urban districts received high growth marks in literacy, suggesting that their students are on track to catch up with higher-performing school systems.


Read Chalkbeat’s guide to understanding this year’s TNReady scores.


The performance of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district, lagged considerably compared to the state, with only 6.8 percent of students scoring on or above grade level in Algebra I, compared to 20.8 percent statewide. The gaps were smaller for English exams.

Students in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the second largest district, beat out statewide trends in Integrated Math II, where 28 percent of students passed compared to 23.8 percent statewide. Nashville shifted to Integrated Math — an alternative to Algebra I, II and Geometry — in 2015. Otherwise, the district’s scores also lagged the state’s as a whole.

Students in Knox County Schools, the third-largest district, outperformed the state as a whole on some of the new tests, with the widest margin in U.S. History. But, as was the case in virtually all districts, scores in Knox County were significantly down from last year’s across the board. Although the rebooted report card was supposed to be easier to understand, the district released an inaccurate statement on Tuesday morning that Knox County saw marked improvement.

In Hamilton County Schools, where one Chattanooga high school is among Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent and eligible for state takeover, passing rates for some subjects were within 1 percentage point of statewide scores, although none were above.

The gaps between statewide performance and the Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district with three high schools in Memphis, were among the largest. No ASD high school students scored at the highest level on the Algebra II exam, and less than 1 percent scored on grade level, compared to 2.6 percent and 21.4 percent of students scoring at each respective level statewide.

The state gave Shelby County, Metro Nashville, Hamilton County and the ASD the highest possible score for growth in literacy. For that measure, the state uses the complex Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which measures how students performed relative to how other students performed at the same level on past tests.  Knox County received a 3 out of 5 on literacy, but was the only district with a 5 in growth in numeracy.

Combatting Tennessee’s low literacy rate has been a state priority in recent years, and most districts have initiated their own reading improvement programs.

“While we would love to have 5s in all areas, our emphasis on literacy shows we can make positive gains,” said Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga. “Now we need to put the same emphasis on mathematics and science.”

McQueen said many districts struggled with growth in math because the test was so different. For the first time, calculators were prohibited for some questions.

“The depth of what the expectation was in terms of problem-solving … was very different,” she said. “When you take (the calculator) away, that’s going to be a real adjustment, a real change.”

The Department of Education has published an annual report card since the early 1990s to provide an overview of state, district and school-level performance. The new online report card was designed to help educators and families better understand information about their schools.

 “This new report card is easier to use and has better information about whether our students are academically on track, both of which will help parents, educators, district leaders, and advocates support our students’ success,” McQueen said in a news release. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include growth scores and comments from state and district leaders.

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.