behind the scenes

What a day is like inside Pearson’s test scoring facility

Facing widespread backlash after years of controversies and testing glitches, one of the world’s largest testing companies is taking an unusual approach to quieting critics: It’s opening its doors.

Pearson, a British-based testing conglomerate that recently signed on for a two-year contract to aid in writing and administering Indiana’s ISTEP test, today invited Indianapolis reporters to its north side scoring facility in an effort to reveal how the company hand-scores questions on hundreds of thousands of student exams.

It’s part of a charm offensive from a company that depends on public contracts but is often at the center of public debate over testing in schools.

“We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t pull back the curtain,” said Scott Overland, Pearson’s new director of media.

With parents and educators often skeptical about how exams are made and scored at a time when test scores can influence everything from teacher bonuses to whether schools are allowed to continue to operate, Pearson is hoping to allay fears by better explaining its work.

“We completely understand how this whole assessment process, the knowledge that parents and educators and the public has about that is limited,” Overland said as he led reporters through Pearson’s scoring facility on the third floor of a mid-sized office building.

The tour featured a short walk through the floor, which consisted of three large rooms and several small offices and conference rooms. Pearson executives and officials in charge of the scoring process explained how scorers, who must have a four-year college degrees, are recruited by reaching out to retired teachers, tutors and other educators. They receive about seven hours of in-person or online training and most learn to score just one open-ended question — including essays and math problems that require students to show their work to demonstrate that they understand the concept.

Multiple choice questions are graded by machine at Pearson’s main scoring facility in Iowa.

Pearson execs on the tour showed reporters how scorers log onto a computer platform where they see scanned images of student papers they must assess and grade. Their work is tested by “validity” questions that supervisors use to test their scorers for accuracy.

Scoring supervisors sit quietly at rows of tables in front of boxy computers in the scoring center. They’re in regular communication with the scorers themselves, who typically work from home across Indiana. Because scorers and supervisors don’t necessarily work regular business hours, many tables were sparsely filled Thursday morning.

Allison Tucker, a scoring supervisor for fourth-grade reading who’s been working with Pearson for more than 10 years, said one of her graders might do 70 questions in an hour. If a scorer gets off track and starts grading incorrectly, Tucker said that’s where the supervisors can step in.

“That’s one of the things that we really take seriously,” Tucker said. “So far it hasn’t been a problem for us.”

Few businesses in the education world are under as much day-to-day scrutiny as testing giants like Pearson, since just a handful of companies compete for lucrative state testing contracts and the chance to sell associated test prep materials for those exams.

Pearson is the largest education company in the world and a leader in standardized test development, having nabbed a contract for the multistate, Common Core-linked PARCC exam and one to handle the scoring for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Yet it’s an industry frequently under fire when errors are discovered among millions of test questions or when problems arise with scoring or computer testing platforms. Every few weeks during standardized testing season, critics can seize on headlines reporting computer malfunctions or other testing disruptions.

Just yesterday, an employee error caused widespread test cancellation of New Jersey’s PARCC exam.

The problems aren’t limited to Pearson. Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP test, which was haunted by glitches and scoring delays was administered by California-based CTB, a Pearson competitor. CTB also ran into problems in 2013 when about 78,000 Indiana students taking the test on computers were interrupted over the course of several days — an error that forced CTB to pay $13 million in damages to the state.

Indiana then dumped CTB and hired Pearson last year with a more than $30 million contract to administer the 2016 and 2017 ISTEP exams, but the state is now looking to create yet another new exam for 2018.

The new exam will surely generate another a sought-after testing contract. So Pearson could be treating the ISTEP as something of an audition, trying to make a good impression in hopes of ongoing work.

“We recognize very much that this is critically important work we are doing,” said Melodie Jurgens, who oversees the general scoring process. “Our scorers are quite passionate, and they care a lot about how students do. They want to get it right because they know it’s important.”

Indiana is one of the first states where Pearson has invited reporters to tour its facilities, though earlier this week Overland said some national news outlets were given tours of the Iowa facility. The company hasn’t used such strategies in the past, he said, but plans to open up tours in other states going forward.

Granting this level of access to reporters isn’t a common move for testing companies, said Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an organization that acts as a testing watchdog. He said he’d been contacted by another reporter about a similar tour this past week but had never heard of this approach before.

But given the challenges Pearson has faced recently — including the loss of three major testing contracts in Florida, Texas and New York — it’s not necessarily a surprise.

“All the major testing companies have had computer testing failures,” Schaeffer said. “It shows an incredible pattern of technological failure that is more than the isolated glitch that they like to make it seem.”

Since Indiana switched to Pearson this year, things have gone relatively smoothly. The state officially started its second round of 2016 ISTEP tests this week, and few problems have been reported.

But Schaeffer said Indiana has “jumped from the frying pan into the incinerator” by making its test vendor switch.

“It’s a perverse game of musical chairs in which a state might reject a contract with a vendor for doing a bad job and hires a new vendor who has time available because they just got fired from another job,” Schaeffer said.

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.

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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.