Are Children Learning

Jeffco board reverses course on early-childhood assessment

The conservative majority of Jeffco Public Schools’ board of education on Thursday revised a previous decision to halt the district’s use of an early childhood education assessment linked to millions of dollars in preschool funding.

But it wasn’t a full retreat.

Jeffco receives more than $5 million from the Colorado Preschool Program to cover tuition for the suburb’s most at-risk students. The money is conditioned, in part, on the district assessing toddlers and providing that data to the state to measure the effectiveness of the program. The district is also required, under federal law governing free preschool children with disabilities, to assess their students.

The assessment under contention in Jeffco, TS GOLD, is one of two approved assessments that districts may use to send the state the information it requests. It requires preschool teachers to assess more than 30 different indicators of education readiness, capture data through pictures, video and work samples, and provide parents with an individualized learning plan for their students.

Critics fear the assessment is taking too much time from classroom instruction and have raised concerns over student privacy policies. Additionally, they argue that the mandate of assessing children — at any level — for state and federal purposes irks those who believe that decision is best left to local school boards and school leaders.

At its Dec. 12 meeting, the board halted the use of TS GOLD at the preschool level, putting in jeopardy the preschool funding. The December decision also ended the phasing-in of the assessment in kindergarten classrooms. (By the fall of 2015, all Colorado kindergarten classrooms will be required to use either TS GOLD or another assessment pending state approval.)

But after last night’s 3-2 vote, the district will continue to narrowly use the assessment as mandated. And the free preschool program for about 1,500 toddlers is safe. The board’s action last night did not reinstate the use of the program in kindergarten. It also required the district tp seek a waiver from the assessment.

“We’re simply dealing with a compliance concern that was raised,” said board president Ken Witt after the vote. “We’re going to pursue a waiver with the state that would imply, ‘I do not want to do this, but [we] feel we’re required to at this time.’”

The board’s minority — Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman — opposed both the original decision to end the use of TS GOLD and Thursday’s decision to reinstate it on a limited basis.

“The bottom line,” Dahlkemper said, “[is] no strings attached.”

She fears the board’s action is a slippery policy slope.

“The devil is in the details,” she said. “Once you start going down the road of a waiver, it raises lots of red flags for me.”

Jefferson County parents were equally divided.

“Some families are worried about privacy,” said Darcy Wood, who attended the meeting flanked by a group of parents who support the district’s use of TS GOLD. “We respect their right to opt out of assessments as they see fit. But we’re in. We want our children’s learning, center stage. We want it accounted for — demonstrated, celebrated and used to move students forward.”

Wood said she believes the results of the assessments make classroom time more custom and informed.

“At another preschool, our children’s teachers feel it helps them plan activities and tells where children are developmentally,” she said. “They feel the work is worth the information they get fro their children.”

But Sunny Flynn, and another group of parents, fear data collection like TS GOLD could have dangerous repercussions.

“TS GOLD has a de facto monopoly,” Flynn said. “They’re creating a very powerful database. And before we move forward, our privacy policies need to catch up.”

Flynn was also concerned about classroom time being taken away while teachers “run around with an iPad” trying to collect a myriad of data.

“Our teachers need to be nurturing and teaching our kids,” she said. “Our children are not guinea pigs.”

Both sides of the argument did agree on one thing: regardless of the board’s decision, lawsuits are likely to follow.

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.