ditching days

The state’s final answer? Math and English tests will be cut by one day each

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

State officials voted to significantly shorten the state’s grades 3-8 English and math assessments on Monday, cutting the tests from three to two days each.

Shortening the tests is a win for teachers, students and parents who argued New York’s classrooms are too focused on preparing for and taking standardized tests. Under the plan approved Monday, shorter tests would hit classrooms in spring 2018.

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa nodded to these concerns on Monday, saying testing “has been an issue that has consumed our classrooms, our parents, our teachers.”

The state said that in addition to reducing testing days, the move will accomplish three things: Shortening scoring times for teachers, allowing schools to move more quickly to computer-based testing, and implementing a suggestion made by the governor’s Common Core Task Force.

However, the measure did not pass without debate. In a lengthy discussion, several Regents raised concerns – chief among them that shortening tests does not get to the heart of what needs to be fixed.

Shortening the tests, for instance, does not change whether teachers find the test results valuable and can use them to improve instruction, several Regents said. They suggested a broader conversation about the purpose of the tests and what information they yield.

“What is it that we’re attempting to measure?” asked Regent Judith Johnson. “And whatever it was we were attempting to measure with the current SED [State Education Department] assessments, do we actually get that data?”

Others wondered if the board made the decision to shorten the tests too quickly without analyzing potential drawbacks. Changing the tests could impede the state’s ability to make long-term comparisons, for instance, and students might not be able to show the full breadth of their abilities on a shorter exam. The state also said for this year, changes would have to be made without educator input on the number and types of questions.

“I’m troubled by not being convinced that we have sufficient answers at this point,” said Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, who abstained from the final vote. He wondered aloud if the state had moved too “hastily” on the changes.

Still, this is only an interim step. A document outlining the new policy said these two-day sessions will be in place until there are new assessments aligned to the new “Next Generation Learning Standards,” the state’s revision of Common Core. Simultaneously, state officials are looking at creative ways to change those tests. (They discussed some options on Monday.)

In the meantime, the decision to shorten math and English tests may help offset concerns that assessments are consuming too much time. Opposition to state testing has become a major issue in New York, where one in five families opted out of tests in 2015 and 2016 to protest an overemphasis on tests and the use of standardized assessments to judge teachers and schools.

In response to these concerns, state officials took some items off the test in 2016 and gave students unlimited time to complete questions. Yet, dropping two days of testing marks the most significant change to date.

When the previous reforms were announced, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of the New York State Allies for Public Education, one of the leaders of the opt-out movement, called them “non-change changes.” But reached Sunday, Rudley called the planned elimination of testing days “a step in the right direction.”

The state teachers union also sent out a statement supporting the change. “New York should only test as much as absolutely necessary to meet the federal law’s requirements and not a question more,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “Today’s vote by the Regents takes us closer to that goal.”

Though the big-picture questions about testing are important, Rosa said, state officials had to make a final decision about the length of next year’s assessments.

“This plane either takes off or stays on the ground,” Rosa said.

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.