hitting the pause button

ACT may get one more year as Colorado’s mandatory 11th grade test

A protest outside a Boulder high school of last school year's CMAS tests.

Colorado 11th graders may all be taking the ACT college placement exam this spring after all.

Right before Christmas, the state Department of Education announced that Colorado would be switching its mandatory test for high school juniors from the ACT to a new version of the SAT, a product of the College Board.

The decision to switch to the SAT shocked many superintendents, educators and others who were incredulous at the timing and that the state would move away from a long-established exam that drew few if any complaints in an era of anti-testing backlash.

But in an email Monday evening to school district superintendents, Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp said the department is working with the two testing providers on a plan that would keep the ACT status quo for one more year.

“I know that this is a high-stakes assessment for students, with college entrance, placement and scholarships on the line,” Asp wrote. “To require this year’s 11th graders to take the SAT exam this spring – after they have already invested time, money and energy in preparing to take a different assessment – would not be in their best interest.”

Asp did not provide a time frame for a final decision. He previously promised that the department would explore “options for flexibility” for this year’s juniors.

Department spokeswoman Dana Smith said holding onto the ACT one more year “is not a done deal. It’s a proposal at this point.” However, she said the department realized “right away” that the timing of the decision so close to the exams this spring would pose a challenge to 11th graders.

Under the plan, every 11th grader would take the ACT this spring, and the SAT would become mandatory for next year’s 11th graders.

A selection committee chose the SAT for 11th graders and the PSAT as a new required test for 10th graders. The state is doing away with 10th and 11th grade PARCC English and math tests that proved especially unpopular with high school students in their debut last spring. Under the proposal the education department is working on, 10th graders would take the PSAT as planned.

State officials said that in making its decision, the committee cited the SAT tests’ alignment with the Common Core standards in math and English, and credited the College Board’s reporting system and resources as being more useful.

The decision was a significant coup for the College Board, which has been working to wrest control of the market for mandatory tests away from the ACT. The new SAT, debuting this March, is designed to align with the Common Core, with a greater focus on analytical reasoning and other changes.

College-bound high-school students across the country take either the ACT or SAT — or both — depending on where they want to go to school. But in Colorado, the ACT has been mandatory for high-school juniors since 2001 — and the state picks up the tab. The scores are part of the state’s system for holding schools and districts accountable for student performance.

The decision to go with the College Board tests is to become official at the end of the procurement process, which Smith said will come on Wednesday evening unless the ACT protests. As of Monday, no protest had been filed, she said.

State officials say they will make public both the details of the competing bids and the identities of the selection committee members after the procurement process. The state said the committee was made up of educators and administrators from urban, rural and suburban districts across the state. Content matter experts, assessment experts, special population professionals, guidance counselors and higher education professionals were represented.

Here is the full text of Asp’s letter to superintendents:
Dear Superintendents and BOCES Directors,

I have heard from students, educators and parents, as well as many of you, who are concerned about the impact of the selection of the College Board’s SAT exam for Colorado’s college entrance exam this year.

I want to assure you that I hear your concerns, and I agree with many of them. While I know the selection committee chose the exam they found would be most beneficial to students over the long term, the timing of the RFP process and the selection leaves this year’s 11th-grade students in a difficult position.

Many of this year’s 11th graders have been getting ready to take the ACT college entrance exam this spring through a variety of preparation activities including taking practice exams, using commercially available ACT preparation materials, and taking an ACT precursor assessment. I know that this is a high-stakes assessment for students, with college entrance, placement and scholarships on the line. To require this year’s 11th graders to take the SAT exam this spring – after they have already invested time, money and energy in preparing to take a different assessment – would not be in their best interest.

CDE is working with the vendors on a transition proposal that would allow 11th grade students to take the ACT this year only, instead of the new SAT. This would not change the requirement for this year’s 10th graders to take the PSAT 10 in preparation for Colorado’s full transition to the SAT in spring 2017.

More details on this proposal, as well as implementation of the PSAT, are being provided to your district assessment coordinators, and I will keep you posted on our progress with this idea.

As always, if you have additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Elliott

Elliott Asp, Ph.D.
Interim Commissioner of Education
Office of the Commissioner

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.


District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth


Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.

exclusive

Most Memphis schools score low on student growth under new state test

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

More than half of Memphis schools received the lowest possible score for student growth on Tennessee’s new test last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, about 54 percent of the district’s 187 schools scored in the bottom rung of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

That includes most schools in the Innovation Zone, a reversal after years of showing high growth in the district’s prized turnaround program.

Charter schools fared poorly as well, as did schools that were deemed among the state’s fastest-improving in 2015.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the scores a “huge wakeup call.”

“It shows that we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Monday. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating. … It starts with making sure we’re supporting teachers around mastering the new standards.”

District leaders across Tennessee have been trying to wrap their heads around the latest growth scores since receiving the data in late August from the State Department of Education. Only two years earlier, the Memphis district garnered the highest possible overall growth score. But since then, the state has switched to a harder test called TNReady that is aligned for the first time to more rigorous academic standards.

TVAAS results are scheduled to be released publicly this week, but Chalkbeat obtained a copy being circulated within Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

The data is prompting questions from some Memphis educators — and assurances from state officials — over the validity of TVAAS, the state’s system for measuring learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools.

This is the first year of issuing district-wide TVAAS scores since 2015. That’s because of the state’s cancellation of 2016 testing for grades 3-8 due mostly to failures in the switch to online testing.

Some educators wonder whether the bumpy switch to TNReady is a factor in this year’s nosedive, along with changes in how the scores are calculated.

For example, data for fourth-graders is missing since there is no prior state testing in third grade for comparison. Elementary and middle schools also don’t have growth scores for social studies, since the 2017 questions were a trial run and the results don’t count toward a school’s score.

Hopson acknowledged concerns over how the state compares results from “two very different tests which clearly are apples and oranges,” but he added that the district won’t use that as an excuse.

“Notwithstanding those questions, it’s the system upon which we’re evaluated on and judged,” he said.

State officials stand by TVAAS. They say drops in proficiency rates resulting from a harder test have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores, since all students are experiencing the same change.

“Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools is not the only district with disappointing TVAAS results. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools logged low growth scores. But Gast said that more districts earned average or high growth scores of 3, 4 or 5 last school year than happened in 2015.

Want to help us understand this issue? Send your observations to tn.tips@chalkbeat.org

Below is a breakdown of Shelby County’s TVAAS scores. A link to a school-by-school list of scores is at the bottom of this story.

Districtwide

School-wide scores are a combination of growth in each tested subject: literacy, math, science and social studies.

Fifty three schools saw high growth in literacy, an area where Shelby County Schools has doubled down, especially in early grades. And 51 schools saw high growth in math.

Note: A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year. A score of 1 represents significantly lower academic growth compared to peers across the state.

2017

School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 101 54%
2 19 10%
3 20 11%
4 10 5%
5 37 20%

2015

School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 58 28%
2 16 8%
3 38 19%
4 18 9%
5 75 37%

Innovation Zone

Out of the 23 schools in the district’s program to turn around low-performing schools, most received a growth score of 1 in 2017. That stands in stark contrast to prior years since the program opened in 2012, when most schools were on a fast growth track.

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 14
2 2
3 2
4 0
5 5

Reward schools

Nearly half of 32 schools deemed 2015 Tennessee reward schools for high growth saw a major drop in TVAAS scores in 2017:

  • Central High
  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Germanshire Elementary
  • KIPP Memphis Middle Academy
  • Kirby High
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary
  • Power Center Academy High
  • Power Center Academy Middle
  • Ross Elementary
  • Sheffield High
  • South Park Elementary
  • Southwind High
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Westside Elementary

Charter schools

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools fared similarly to district-run schools in growth scores, with nearly half receiving a TVAAS of 1 compared to 26 percent of charter schools receiving the same score in 2015.

2017

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 18
2 6
3 7
4 2
5 7

2015

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 10
2 2
3 7
4 3
5 16

Optional schools

Half of the the district’s optional schools, which are special studies schools that require students to test into its programs, received a 1 on TVAAS. That’s compared to just 19 percent in 2015.

2017

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 23
2 6
3 5
4 2
5 10

2015

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
2 5
3 6
4 5
5 14

You can sort through a full list of TVAAS scores for Shelby County Schools here.