Are Children Learning

In Shelby County Schools, pride about NAEP results, concerns about gaps

Students at Ford Road
Students at Ford Road Elementary School, in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, walk down the hallway on Thursday. The school’s test scores have gone up dramatically since it entered the I-Zone.

Last Thursday, as state politicians and educators celebrated the state’s performance on the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, 6th graders at Colonial Middle School, an arts-focused school, were discussing data day, a regular part of the school’s cycle during which students in the middle school graph and track their performance in all of their classes.

“We can keep up with our grades,” said Ariel Amos, one of the students. “The graphs help.” Each student has a folder with a chart for each course; high scores were colored in with green colored pencil, while lower scores were colored in with yellow or red.

That focus on data and accountability was one of the policy emphases state officials cited to explain Tennessee students’ growth on on the 4th and 8th grade math and reading tests: Scores went up more than in any other state in the country this year. While NAEP scores aren’t broken down by school or by district, educators in Shelby County schools said they’d seen improvements in many local schools that lined up with the increase in NAEP results.

“NAEP is a good measuring stick to compare Tennessee to other states,” said Antonio Burt, the principal at Ford Road Elementary School. “Tennessee has put emphasis on Common Core and teacher work. By Tennessee starting early and being proactive, now you’re seeing dividends.”

Both Ford Road Elementary and Colonial Middle School have both seen significant improvement in their students’ performance on state tests in recent years, which principals at both schools tied to using data to drive instruction, better evaluation of teachers, and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states nationally. But educators at both schools also raised concerns about the persistent achievement gaps between demographic groups in the state.

Data-Driven Instruction and Common Core

Marty Griffin, the principal at Colonial Middle School, an arts-focused school that took the NAEP this year, said that soon after the state’s standards changed four years ago, just 13 percent of the school’s students scored proficient and advanced on state standardized tests. But the school’s focus on using data to improve instruction has gone along with increases in students’ test scores, and last year, 45 percent of the school’s students scored that well, he said.

Kevin Sanford, a middle school math teacher, said the improved scores reflected better education in the state’s schools. He said there had been a shift in his teaching since new standards and evaluations came into play: He focused on building students’ basic skills, like multiplication and addition, but also on analysis and explanation.

Adriene Hutton, an 8th grade English language arts teacher, agreed, saying that NAEP wasn’t the kind of test that students automatically take seriously, as it doesn’t affect their grades. But, she said, the entire school has focused increasingly on data and getting students ready for tests. “They know it’s important,” said Hutton. Hutton also said that the district’s focus on reading and Common Core-focused reading was also helping.

Teachers at Ford Road Elementary, which is in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a group of turnaround schools, have also focused on using data from students’ test to determine what needs to be taught or retaught.

Kimberly Rhodes, a 4th grade English language arts teacher at Ford Road, said that was part of dramatic improvements in schools in her eight years teaching. “Before I might give a test every two weeks,” she said. Now, she said, “it actually drives instruction,” she said. “I can say, ‘I know what you need.'”

Some teachers were more concerned about the focus on testing. One 3rd grade teacher at a Shelby County school, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid alienating her principal, said, “We’ve always known this day was coming, when it was all teaching to the test. Well, now it’s here.”

Teacher Evaluations

New teacher evaluation systems also got credit at the state level for the NAEP gains. Ford Road principal Burt said that the changes helped increase expectations and articulate a standard of excellence for teachers. He said that many had embraced the change–but not all.

Rhodes said that the evaluation rubric helped clarify expectations. “Evaluations — for me, I feel like it makes me a better teacher,” she said.

Math teacher Sanford said firmly that regardless of all the policy shifts, “the explanation for the growth is that teachers care about the kids.”

Data wall
Check out the “data wall” in the background in a sixth grade class at Colonial Middle School. Students have a data day once a month where they track progress in all of their classes.

Achievement Gaps 

 NAEP scores showed persistent achievement gaps between black and white students and between Hispanic and white students in the state, especially at the 4th grade level. Shelby County teachers weren’t surprised by the finding.

“As an African-American, I want our students to perform as well as any other students,” said Rhodes. “I try to increase their exposure,” she said, to vocabulary and to ideas they might not otherwise encounter.

Ford Road principal Burt said the early achievement gaps in 4th grade were concerning because, too often, “achievement gaps start so early…and then they never get closed.”

Burt raised concerns about the amount of change in schools serving Memphis’s and the state’s low-income minority students. “Are we still working to create a system of success rather than silos of success?” Burt asked.

 

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.