Testing kids' personalities

Project seeks to measure students’ non-academic skills

Mockup of what a Project: BeReady student evaluation might look like.

The riddle of 21st century skills — the broad term often used to describe a set of abilities like critical thinking and collaboration — has always has been about how to measure them. But now an alliance of education groups think they have a way to do that.

The groups this week unveiled Project: BeReady, an online survey designed to indicate students’ abilities in such non-academic areas as professionalism, entrepreneurial skills, personal traits and civic awareness.

“We’re all looking at these 21st century skills, but there’s no tool to measure them,” said Kathryn Harris, a development officer for Generation Schools Network, an education management non-profit.

Michael Simpson, CEO of Pairin, said of the new tool, “This is really about whole student development.” Pairin is a Denver talent and personnel evaluation company that is teaming with Generation Schools, which in Colorado operates a school at Denver’s West High School and is working in the Englewood district.

He said his company got involved in the project because it decided “the biggest impact we could make is to fill that [job] pipeline with qualified applicants.”

Harris, Simpson and others spoke to about 125 invited guests at a Tuesday event in Denver intended to describe the project’s pilot phase, launch a two-year second phase intended to involve 10,000 students and make a subtle fundraising pitch.

The Project: BeReady survey is an online test that allows a user to build a description of herself by selecting whether words and phrases accurately describe them or not. Simpson said it’s based on psychological research dating back to the late 1940s. Developers came up with a detailed list of skills the survey is supposed to test for (see full list at bottom of story). Learn more on the project’s website.

During field testing earlier this year in Colorado, adults took about 12 minutes to finish the survey, and students took about 22 minutes, Simpson said. The current version of the survey is designed for students in 8th grade and above, although promoters hope to eventually develop a version for younger students.

Project: BeReady also is developing tools to help teachers learn how to use the test and a dashboard that will allow teachers and administrators to view and analyze both individual student and aggregated data.

Testing, privacy concerns raised

Project backers acknowledged public concerns about testing and student data privacy in their remarks.

“Project: BeReady is not about just another test,” said Generation Schools executive Mary Cipollone, stressing it’s about giving students, parents and teachers information they don’t have now. “It is not about more data.”

Asked about the ill-fated inBloom data project, Simpson said, “The biggest problem inBloom has was lack of communication, or lack of effective communication. … There were a lot of misconceptions that weren’t addressed until it was too late.”

He added, “I think we know how to communicate in a way that won’t give people the wrong impression.”

Simpson also said the project has strict privacy controls. (See privacy policy here, and the project’s Student Bill of Rights here.)

In an effort to differentiate itself, the project’s website also has a detailed “Is/Is not” section.

What’s next

Generation Schools and Pairin, using about $875,000 of their own money, earlier this year developed the survey and related tools and gave the survey to about 5,900 students in 3,500 adults in Colorado.

Starting in September, the project plans to start a two-year pilot project involving 10,000 students around the country.

“We’re looking to scale this across Colorado and, we think, across the nation,” Harris said.

And, backers are hoping to raise $320,000 to help schools and youth development groups pay for participating and an additional $623,000 to support further development of the tools and professional development for teachers and administrators in using the system and analyzing data.

The project’s business plan envisions charging $10,000 per site and $10 per student a year for the service, which Simpson termed “really, really affordable.”

Who’s involved

The idea originated with Generation Schools and Pairin, but the project’s steering committee also includes representatives from the Colorado Education Initiative (formerly the Colorado Legacy Foundation), Department of Education, Colorado Community College System, Accenture Foundation, Gill Foundation, Donnell Kay Foundation, Get Smart Schools, Colorado Succeeds and Academy School District.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.