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.

 

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”

meet the fellows

Meet the 38 teachers chosen by SCORE to champion education around Tennessee

PHOTO: SCORE
The year-long fellowships offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education were awarded to 38 Tennessee educators.

Six teachers from Memphis have been awarded fellowships that will allow them to spend the next year supporting better education in Tennessee.

The year-long fellowships, offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, train and encourage teachers and other educators to speak at events, write publicly about their experiences, and invite policymakers to their classrooms. The program is in its fifth year through the nonpartisan advocacy and research organization, also known as SCORE, which was founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from Tennessee.

The fellowships, known as the Tennessee Educator Fellowships, have been awarded to 150 educators since the program’s launch in 2014. This year’s class of 38 educators from around the state have a combined 479 years of experience.

“The fellows’ diverse perspectives and experiences are invaluable as they work both inside and outside the classroom and participate in state conversations on preparing all students for postsecondary and workforce success,” SCORE President and CEO Jamie Woodson said in a news release.

Besides the Shelby County teachers, the group also includes educators who work for the state-run Achievement School District, public Montessori schools, and a school dedicated to serving children with multiple disabilities.

The 2018-19 fellows are:

  • Nathan Bailey, career technical education at Sullivan North High School, Sullivan County Schools
  • Kalisha Bingham-Marshall, seventh-grade math at Bolivar Middle School, Hardeman County Schools
  • Sam Brobeck, eighth-grade math at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter Middle School. Shelby County Schools
  • Monica Brown, fourth-grade English language arts and social studies at Oakshire Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Nick Brown, school counselor at Westmoreland Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Sherwanda Chism, grades 3-5 English language arts and gifted education at Winridge Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Richard J. Church, grades 7-8 at Liberty Bell Middle School, Johnson City Schools
  • Ada Collins, third grade at J.E. Moss Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Lynn Cooper,  school counselor at South Pittsburg High School, Marion County Schools
  • Colletta M. Daniels, grades 2-4 special education at Shrine School, Shelby County Schools
  • Brandy Eason, school counselor at Scotts Hill Elementary School, Henderson County Schools
  • Heather Eskridge, school counselor at Walter Hill Elementary School, Rutherford County Schools
  • Klavish Faraj, third-grade math and science at Paragon Mills Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Mavis Clark Foster, fifth-grade English language arts and science at Green Magnet Academy, Knox County Schools
  • Ranita Glenn, grades 2-5 reading at Hardy Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Telena Haneline, first grade at Eaton Elementary School, Loudon County Schools
  • Tenesha Hardin, first grade at West Creek Elementary School, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools
  • Thaddeus Higgins, grades 9-12 social studies at Unicoi County High School, Unicoi County Schools
  • Neven Holland, fourth-grade math at Treadwell Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Alicia Hunker, sixth-grade math at Valor Flagship Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Alex Juneau, third grade at John Pittard Elementary School, Murfreesboro City Schools
  • Lyndi King, fifth-grade English language arts at Decatur County Middle School, Decatur County Schools
  • Rebecca Ledebuhr, eighth-grade math at STEM Preparatory Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Aleisha McCallie, fourth-grade math and science at East Brainerd Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education.
  • Brian McLaughlin, grades 10-12 math at Morristown-Hamblen High School West, Hamblen County Schools
  • Caitlin Nowell, seventh-grade English language arts at South Doyle Middle School, Knox County Schools
  • Paula Pendergrass, advanced academics resources at Granbery Elementary School,  Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Julie Pepperman, eighth-grade science at Heritage Middle School, Blount County Schools
  • Kelly Piatt, school counselor at Crockett County High School, Crockett County Schools
  • Ontoni Reedy, grades 1-3 at Community Montessori, Jackson-Madison County Schools
  • Tiffany Roberts, algebra and geometry at Lincoln County Ninth Grade Academy, Lincoln County Schools
  • Craig Robinson, grades 3-5 science at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, Achievement School District
  • Jen Semanco, 10th- and 11th-grade English language arts at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Amanda Smithfield, librarian at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Cyndi Snapp, fourth-grade math at Carter’s Valley Elementary School, Hawkins County Schools
  • David Sneed, 12th-grade English at Soddy Daisy High School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Yolanda Parker Williams, fifth-grade math at Karns Elementary School, Knox County Schools
  • Maury Wood II, grades 4-6 technology at Westhills Elementary School, Marshall County Schools