test swap uproar

Formal protest of Colorado’s switch from the ACT to SAT falters, but another effort launches

PHOTO: Flickr/Creative Commons

One challenge to the state’s switch from the ACT to the SAT for 11th grade testing fizzled Thursday while another — launched by roughly 120 district superintendents — took a new tack by arguing state officials may not have followed the rules.

The Colorado Association of School Executives filed a protest Wednesday with the state education department challenging the decision to swap tests, arguing the decision was made without regard to the financial impact on Colorado schools and districts.

But in a statement Thursday to Chalkbeat, senior assistant attorney general Tony Dyl said CASE has no legal standing to protest the contract award to The College Board, the makers of the SAT. CDE officials confirmed hearing the same.

As that effort was seemingly dashed, another surfaced. In a letter Thursday to the State Board of Education, the group of district superintendents raised a litany of concerns about changing tests. Most significantly, the superintendents contend the state did not meet a state procurement process requirement that purchasing offices “meet with interested parties, including affected political subdivisions” before developing a request for a proposal such as the testing contract.

The letter says: “Since it appears school districts were not consulted in this process, this state procurement process was not met.”

An education department spokeswoman said the department is preparing a full response to the letter, and did not have an immediate comment.

District representatives did take part in the process of comparing the two bids from the testing giants. State officials say the selection committee that ultimately recommended The College Board included educators and administrators from urban, rural and suburban districts. The process also included content matter experts, assessment experts, special population professionals, guidance counselors and higher education professionals.

Among the other concerns raised by the district superintendents:

  • Communication about the process and the chance to provide input were “significantly lacking,” and the announcement made when many schools were closed for winter break lacked information about how it all came together.
  • As the state adopts other standardized tests, ditching the ACT means a loss of what has become a rarity: longitudinal data. The ACT has been given in Colorado since 2001.
  • Students who live in poverty are sometimes motivated to attend college by taking the ACT, and this is the test they’ve been preparing for this spring.
  • The timing of the change is complicated because school districts are preparing for adopting and putting in place new graduation requirements, starting with the class of 2021.

Echoing another of the superintendents’ concerns, the CASE protest argued Colorado schools have aligned their efforts for students to perform well on the ACT, and many districts have purchased tests, materials, and data reporting tools to support students in earlier grades.

In his email to Chalkbeat explaining why the protest lacked legal standing, Dyl said the statute at issue says that “any actual or prospective bidder, offeror, or contractor who is aggrieved in connection with a solicitation or award of a contract may protest…”  The ACT is the only entity that would fit that definition and it filed no protest, he said.

The superintendents and CASE joined a growing chorus of criticism of the process and reasoning behind abandoning a long-established and well-respected college entrance exam favored by colleges and universities in the region.

Already, state education officials are working on a compromise that would delay the move to the SAT until spring 2017.

The state education department has disclosed little about the process that led to the choice of the bid from The College Board, saying rules prevent disclosure of information about the bids or the identities of the committee members until the process wraps up. Though that process concluded Wednesday, the CASE protest brought more uncertainty.

Dana Smith, a department of education spokeswoman, said the department is aware of the AG office’s conclusion about the CASE protest but wants to wait for confirmation from the state’s director of procurement before releasing more details about the bids and selection committee.

The two testing giants have been locked in a high-stakes battle to win contracts from states that mandate a college-entrance exams for high school students. Two longtime ACT states — Illinois and Michigan — recently defected to the SAT.

This spring’s SAT is an entirely new test, refashioned to better align with the Common Core State Standards in English and math. State officials cited the tests’ harmony with the Common Core in announcing why the College Board prevailed.

Testing reform legislation approved last spring required 10th and 11th grade tests to be put out to competitive bid and that they be aligned with state academic standards.

Critics of the move say this yet again makes Colorado students guinea pigs, coming off the introduction of PARCC tests last spring.

Along with pressing for a delay in the switch to the SAT, CASE asked the state to revisit the decision entirely, “with a greater level of input and participation from educators in order to fully understand the potential positive and negative impacts and financial burden to school districts of this testing contract.” Educators did take part in the procurement process, including meeting to compare the the two tests to the state’s academic standards.

Bruce Caughey, CASE’s executive director, said in an interview conducted before the AG’s comments that the organization wanted to seize the opportunity to take part in the process when it could. But he thinks the decision ultimately will be political, with involvement from legislators and members of the State Board of Education.

“I don’t think our protest was weighing in about the quality of either test,” Caughey said. “It was more about the process school districts will have to go through to make sure this test provides value to students and families.”

Here is the full text of the CASE protest:

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.