under scrutiny

State defends test-scoring adjustments as rates creep up

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

After years of test-score inflation, the State Education Department is fighting to retain its credibility after scores increased slightly this year.

Amid growing scrutiny, state officials took the unusual step on Monday of posting a memo to its web site that explains why they lowered the number of correct questions needed to pass some of this year’s state reading and math tests. Officials characterized the adjustments as routine and necessary to maintain a consistent level of difficulty over time.

“We’ve been doing [it] for decades and never talked about it in our press releases,” said Deputy State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner in an interview, explaining why the shifts were not disclosed when test scores were released.

But many are still skeptical, in large part because the state has allowed big fluctuations in test difficulty in the past—and those changes were often politically advantageous.

This year, test developers adjusted the number of points that students needed to earn in order to reach a level 3 or 4, denoting academic proficiency on the English and math tests, on eight of the 12 exams given in 2014. The raw scores were lowered on six tests because they were determined to be slightly more difficult than the tests given in 2013, when the state introduced new tests. Raw scores were raised on four tests because they were found to be too easy, and stayed the same for the remaining two.

Officials said the changes were made to ensure that a student would, in theory, get the same score this year as he or she on previous versions of the exam.

Consistency hasn’t been a hallmark of New York state tests, though. The new tests aligned to the Common Core standards forced scores to plummet last year for a second time since 2010. Before that, a three-year boom under then-Commissioner Richard Mills saw city proficiency rates exceed 80 percent in math and near 70 percent in reading. By 2009, the tests were so easy that students could guess on the multiple choice section and still hit the proficiency bar.

“The inflation seen from 2006 to 2009 damaged the credibility of the testing system quite a bit,” Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas said.

There are a variety of explanations for the inflation during the Mills period. One reason, Pallas said, was that the tests covered a narrow spectrum of content that allowed schools to more easily prepare students; others have implied it had something more to do with Mills’ personal desire for score increases.

Wagner blamed faulty data from practice tests that the state relied on to design its tests. Students didn’t take the tests seriously, Wagner said, but the results were still used to determine the level of difficulty for the real thing.

“Kids were getting a lot of questions wrong, which made the questions look harder than they really were,” Wagner said of the practice tests.

Now, scores are creeping back up. In 2014, city math scores improved nearly five percentage points, while English scores rose two points, according to the state.

Critics who remember the testing bubble from last decade have not been so ready to believe the increases are real. Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson wrote on her blog that recent history “should teach us to be open to the possibility” that the scores are being manipulated.

Wagner dismissed the criticism as unwarranted and coming from people unwilling to fully understand the topic.

“Some people appreciate when something is complicated, and are willing to listen,” Wagner said, “and other people aren’t.”

For his part, Pallas—a critic of many of the state’s testing policies—said he believes the state’s scoring adjustments this time around were “credible” and said the new tests were harder to prepare for than the pre-Common Core versions. But, he said, the state needs to continue its efforts to improve transparency.

“I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of it in the past,” Pallas said.

The state has also come under fire for its tallying of city students who did not take the tests. The city insists that just under 2,000 students “opted out” of taking the tests, while the state’s number is more than 10 times that figure. Representatives for both the city and state said that they would have more complete details on Tuesday.

Correction: A previous version stated the wrong number of tests whose raw scores were raised on four tests, not two. 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede