Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools makes academic gains, pushes faster growth

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Sharpe Elementary students share what they've learned during summer vocabulary camp.

Shelby County’s students managed to slightly bump their test scores up last year, according to district-wide results released Wednesday. That’s despite a tumultuous year that included the historic merging of Memphis City and Shelby County School districts, massive layoffs and significant change in board and administrative leadership.

“If you think about what the staff has been through with the challenges of the merger and separation (of the district) and the huge challenges related to that, they deserve a pat on the back for continuing to educate our children and improve their performance with all of the distractions that we’ve had going on,” said William White, chief of planning and accountability.

But the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, scores showed, as the district fractures into seven districts and undergoes dramatic reform, education leaders have a long way to go to catch Memphis-area students up to their peers across the state. District leaders said Wednesday they will shift their focus this year from operational efforts to improving teacher quality.

“When we look at the sheer rates of proficient and advanced, we’re not satisfied with where we are,” White said.

Wednesday’s results only detailed district-level data. School-level scores will be released later in August. The state used combined test information from legacy Memphis City and legacy Shelby County in 2012-13 to establish this year’s target goals that the merged district needed to meet.

Shelby County Schools met 10 of the 11 academic goals set by the state in several areas including literacy and math, but missed its graduation rate goal by 3.7 percent with 73.7 percent of its students graduating last year.

Shelby County saw growth in all subject areas except for high school English III and third through eighth grade math which each dipped a percentage point.  Only a quarter of students scored proficient or advanced in high school English III and a little more than 41 percent of third through eighth grade students were proficient or advanced in math.

Only 41 percent of the district’s third through eighth graders are reading at a proficient or advanced level.

Shelby County Schools saw the largest improvement in high school Algebra I which increased from 46 percent to 54 percent.

But Memphis-area students’ scores were far lower than the state’s average scores.

For example, around 47 percent of Memphis-area high school students scored proficient or advanced on the state’s biology tests compared to 63 percent of the state’s average district. However, biology and science are not subjects that count against districts in the state’s accountability measure.

Last year, the district’s leaders attempted to merge two districts after Memphis City schools gave up its charter, becoming one of the largest districts in the country and bringing in a slate of new leaders. The effort failed when six municipalities petitioned the state to create their own separate districts. That sparked a lawsuit and dramatic budget cuts that lead to massive layoffs and school closings.

Meanwhile, several schools in Memphis were taken over by the state-run Achievement School District after chronically-low dismal test results.  Several more schools in Memphis could likely be taken over by the state over the next several years.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said Wednesday he was glad to see the district’s gains outpace statewide gains but was not satisfied.

“We are very pleased to know we’re trending in the right direction,” Hopson said. “However, we cannot rest with slight gains; we must press forward with a more aggressive agenda that increases student achievement at a more rapid rate.”

In the upcoming school year, which begins on Monday,  the district will focus more on improving literacy and college and career readiness.

“We believe the best way to address (improvement) is to focus on teacher and leader effectiveness at every grade level,” White said.  “Our focus is making sure that we have highly effective teachers, and that we provide support for teachers and leaders who are not as effective as we’d like.”

If a student is not reading well in the third grade, White says, the district has to work with parents to intervene.

“We need (parents) to help develop their child’s language skills through conversations and their literacy skills by reading with them,” he said.

Hopson recently set the district’s long-range goals earlier this year to have 80 percent of its students graduating “college-and career-ready,” 90 percent of students graduating and 100 percent of college- and career-ready students heading to postsecondary opportunities by 2025.

Hopson also hired former Memphis City Schools leader Carol Johnson to help guide the district in making decisions and in selecting its next chief of academics.

And he vowed to the families of students at several schools he shuttered last year that they would have additional education opportunities at their new schools.  One of the opportunities Shelby County is piloting this year is blended learning, which provides students with laptops to use in class and at home to continue studying and receive academic support.  The district spent $5.5 million to place the program in 16 schools.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

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testing 1-2-3

Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 high school students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. in participating high schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.

Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018

The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.

Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.