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.

 

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “… I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “… We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.