Are Children Learning

Democrats: Is there enough time for new academic standards?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Notes from a committee during work to create new Indiana math standards in last year.

The House Education Committee today advanced a bill that would void Common Core standards in Indiana despite concerns from Democrats about whether it allows enough time to put new standards in place.

Senate Bill 91, passed by the full Senate last month, passed the House Education Committee 10-2. It sets a July 1 deadline for new standards to be adopted by the Indiana State Board of Education to replace Common Core.

Democrats on the panel said they doubted Indiana schools and teachers could be ready by the fall to teach new standards. That could create problems if students test scores fall as the scores are tied to accountability measures that can cause teachers to be fired or schools to face state takeover.

“It’s pretty clear to me there is going to be some major implementation questions,” Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes. “We’re just way too enthusiastic. Whether we adopt the best standards in world, if we don’t implement them right we’re facing a potential disaster. Then we will make kids and schools scapegoats.”

Indiana was among the earliest states to adopt Common Core in 2010. Now 45 states have signed on with the goal of assuring that high school students graduate prepared for college or careers. But in Indiana, Common Core came under increasing criticism from conservatives who argued it ceded too much control over what is taught to policymakers outside the state or that the standards are not as strong as standards Indiana created in 2009.

In 2013, the legislature approved a bill to “pause” implementation of Common Core to allow time for a new review of the standards and a new vote of the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1, 2014. That review process has become an effort led by the Indiana State Board of Education and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to set new, Indiana-specific academic standards to replace Common Core. Draft standards were released Wednesday for public comment. Public hearings are scheduled for next week in Indianapolis, Plymouth and Sellersburg. Ritz has said the state board hopes to approve the new standards on April 2.

That would satisfy the requirements in Senate Bill 91, which would void the Common Core and expect new standards to be in place for next school year. But some are starting to wonder if that timeline is realistic.

Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, asked if adjustments could be made to phase in the new standards. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, voted against the bill, arguing it could prove unfair to teachers and students.

“I don’t think we’ve looked at the timeline thoroughly enough,” he said. “We need to make sure teachers have a fair chance.”

The bill moves next to the House floor, where it could be voted on as early as next week. Other bills that moved forward in the House Education Committee today include:

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.