Shelby County Schools administrators want to continue using for another year a testing program that attempts to determine how well students will perform on state tests.

That’s despite principals’ and teachers’ concerns that the program, Discovery Education, can sometimes give “way off” results that can grossly alter the year’s curriculum. Tennessee legislators could also scrap TCAP, the state test Discovery Education was designed to predict, by the end of this year.

Several of the district’s schools face the threat of being taken over by the state after producing dismally-low test scores for several years in a row. Test predictors have been heavily used in recent years to avoid that fate.

After administrators advocated for a one year contract extension of Discovery Education during a board meeting Tuesday, board members were presented with the option of finding another vendor or not using any testing system. The majority of the board members indicated they will likely vote to extend the contract at its next meeting in August.

Discovery Education is given to students throughout the district three times a year in written or digital form.  Teachers and principals use the results to design curriculum and figure out which students need extra attention throughout the year. If the vast majority of a third grade teacher’s students scored high on the reading portion of Discovery Education but low in the math portion, the teacher will spend the next quarter emphasizing math, for example.

Administrators say Discovery Education is usually 72 to 84 percent accurate in predicting how well a student will do on the TCAP.

“We feel that’s strong,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer. “It accurately can inform teachers of student mastery and areas that need to be retaught.”

But at least one principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his job, said the program was “way off” in predicting how well his school would do during a previous school year. It left the teachers with disappointing results and the risk of their evaluations being damaged, he said.

The district, like most in Tennessee, received a surprising blow earlier this spring when the Tennessee General Assembly voted to delay the PARCC assessment for a year and put out another request for proposal. Several legislators felt the state was moving too fast with the new test that would hold high stakes for teachers.

While testing students is a necessity for the district, board member Teresa Jones raised concern Tuesday that using a test that isn’t Common Core or PARCC (Partnership for  Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) -aligned could be a “waste of time” for the district’s students, teachers and principals.

The district participated in several test-runs of the online assessment, bought new computers and expanded its wi-fi network in preparation for PARCC.

Knowing PARCC will not be used in 2014-15, Hopson said Tuesday, does not negate the necessity for the district to have a test that gauges where students are academically.

Since the students will be taking the TCAP in the spring of 2015 and Discovery Education is used to predict performance on that test, Hopson argued it was the district’s best course of action this fall.

The last contract cost the district more than $800,000.

While the future of Discovery Education has yet to be determined, the Shelby County Schools board voted unanimously to expand the use of Istation, another testing tool that predicts literacy test scores, to all of its schools this fall. That program costs around $1 million.  Teachers can use the program, which features lesson plans and interactive quizzes, throughout the year.

The program was used last year in some schools that face especially challenging circumstances like Sharpe Elementary where 70 percent of its students were reading below grade.

“I feel that Istation has made us more aware of where our students were reading, and it holds the entire school more accountable,” said Stephanie Gatewood, who is the school’s family services specialist. “The most powerful element is the real time data, and the ability to drill down into the students’ level of literacy. Mandating that all schools use Istation would be a very wise move for the district: it’s a powerful tool.”

While recognizing that IStation works, Hopson also said he’s aware that people say students are tested too much, but the district has to have a way to assess student performance.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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