score scrutiny

Charter school where English scores spiked scored own state exams

The New York City charter school that made the largest gains on state English tests also made an unprecedented decision to grade its own students’ exams.

English scores surged at Teaching Firms of America Charter School this year, with proficiency rates doubling from nearly 20 percent in 2014 to nearly 40 percent this year — a crucial one for the school to prove itself. Meanwhile, the school also opted out of an external scoring system meant to curb score inflation and bring charter school scoring in line with how exams from district schools are graded.

No one has accused the Brooklyn school of improper testing or grading practices. State officials say they have not received any complaints of cheating; city officials said a monitor visited the school during the tests to ensure compliance with testing rules; and the school’s math scores actually fell.

Founding principal Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II said he was confident that the English gains are an accurate reflection of how far his students have come.

“The growth is the result of authentic instruction,” he said. “That’s what happens when you don’t do test prep.”

Still, Teaching Firms’ unique position as the only school to grade its own state tests this year raises questions about why charter schools are not held to the same scoring standards as other schools in the city.

All New York City schools are responsible for scanning multiple-choice answers into a centralized data system. To ensure consistent scoring and prevent cheating, the city has long kept district schools from scoring their own students’ written responses, instead requiring that schools send teachers to centralized scoring centers to grade tests without knowledge of who took them.

Charter schools, the privately run but publicly funded schools that are exempt from some state regulations, aren’t allowed to participate. They are considered their own districts by the State Education Department and therefore have to handle their own scoring.

But for years, the city’s charter school sector has run a program that mimics the district’s and includes a third-party vendor to monitor the grading in real time. Schools invariably opt in so that their all-important scores aren’t vulnerable to challenges.

“Most charters are going to jump at joining the consortium because it’s a way to both have credibility in your scores, but also ease your mind that there are professionals who know how to do this,” said Constance Bond, executive director of St. Hope Leadership Academy, a charter school in Harlem.

Id-Din said he decided to allow his staff to score students’ answer sheets because he wanted teachers to better understand the state’s test-development and grading process and because it saved money for the school.

The choice was above-board, he said, because state regulations leave charter schools free to decide how to score their students’ tests.

“We took advantage of what every other school like ours can take advantage of,” said Id-Din, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s informal reader advisory board.

Still, no other charter school scored its own tests, according to the New York City Charter School Center, which sponsors the test scoring consortium that allows schools to outsource their scoring duties. “To the best of my knowledge, no school has self-scored other than Teaching Firms” in the decade since the consortium was created, said James Merriman, the head of the Charter Center.

Teaching Firms’ unilateral decision to score its own tests also reveals a new gap in the state’s ability to oversee charter schools. Although city charter schools have not traditionally opted to grade their own tests, the Teaching Firms case shows that schools are allowed to do so without oversight.

The city education department, which directly oversees TFOA and recently vowed to work proactively to stamp out academic impropriety, declined to comment on the school’s decision. A spokesman confirmed that the department sent monitors to the school during testing but did not oversee the school’s grading process.

Teaching Firms is under pressure to convince the department that it should remain open. In 2014, less than one in five third-grade students earned an English score indicating proficiency. The scores were low enough that city reviewers refused to renew the school’s charter for a full five years, and instead gave it just over two years to show improvement or face closure.

The latest test results indicate that Teaching Firms students are making fast progress in English, though not in math. While the average proficiency rate at city charter schools inched up from 28 percent to 29 percent in English, the students who were in TFOA’s third-grade class in 2014 saw their proficiency rate shoot up 30 points this year. The school took a step back on the math tests, with its proficiency rate dropping from 28 percent to 22 percent.

Sol Stern, a contributing editor for City Journal who has written about test security issues for more than a decade, said those English gains appeared to deserve further scrutiny.

“It could be the students are just starting out behind,” Stern said. “But it happens so rarely that it just doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.”

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.