Are Children Learning

State legislature votes to delay Common Core-aligned assessments

Tennessee’s state legislature voted Thursday to delay new tests based on Common Core state standards for a year and start a new competitive bidding process for assessments.

The legislature’s decision, if approved by the governor, means Tennessee schools will continue implementing the Common Core state standards, which have been adopted by 46 states, but will not use an assessment based on the standards to gauge students’ academic performance in the 2014-15 school year.

The PARCC assessment was supposed to be used in Tennessee schools next year. The state’s legislature considered delaying implementation of both the test and the state standards for as many as two years.

A house conference committee report released Wednesday  and adopted Thursday says that the state should use the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, which is the current state assessment, again in 2014-15. Meanwhile, it should hold a competitive bidding process to determine which assessment to use starting in the 2015-16 school year. The committee calls for the test to be field tested before it is implemented.

As the Tennessee Education Report notes, PARCC could again be selected through that competitive bidding process. But other states that had initially signed on to use the PARCC assessment, including Kentucky and Florida, have also changed their plans.

The report also set guidelines limiting how student data collected in the assessments can be used. It also requires any nationally-developed standards for science or social studies to be explicitly approved by the state’s legislature. (The current Common Core standards are just for English language arts and Math.)

The committee report is couched in the language of state’s rights: It begins by saying, “WHEREAS the federal government has no constitutional authority to set educational standards for Tennessee or to determine how children in Tennessee will be educated. Any partnership with the federal government is solely at the discretion of the state…”

The bills delaying the assessment, which must be signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, had a tumultuous run through the state’s legislature: The state standards, the textbooks used to teach them, the assessments used to measure their implementation, and the way data from the tests will be used have all been the subject of intense debate.

Andrea Zelinski, a reporter for the Nashville Scene, reports that the governor is likely to go along with the delay: 

Advocacy groups bemoaned the decision. “This legislation creates a disappointing pause in Tennessee’s efforts to have a high-quality assessment that truly measures student learning,” said Jamie Woodson, the CEO of SCORE, a nonpartisan education advocacy group. “We have supported moving to a new state assessment in the 2014-15 school year because students deserve a more engaging, skills-based assessment that is better aligned with classroom instruction and allows them the opportunity to show how much they have actually learned.”

Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson II has said that he believes the district should move forward with implementation of the Common Core state standards, but that the district did not have enough computers to implement the PARCC tests, which are mostly online, as of earlier this spring. The district has been preparing for the PARCC tests this year regardless.

The debates in the Tennessee legislature reflect a national debate about the Common Core state standards, which were adopted with great enthusiasm by many states but which have since become the subject of heated debate. Here is a “tracker” of anti-Common Core legislation. Many states have experienced challenges in implementing the new standards, which were intended to be more rigorous and more uniform across states.

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State education commissioner Kevin Huffman released a statement about the delays:

“Our teachers have worked hard to prepare for new assessments, and I genuinely believe our students are ready and that they can compete with students in other states. While I am disappointed that Tennessee students will not move forward with the assessments planned for next year, I understand the General Assembly’s goal of ensuring that we select the right assessments for the long run. We will continue to focus on implementing higher academic standards and ensuring that Tennessee students improve faster than students anywhere in the country.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: