More Memphis schools move off state’s list of low scorers

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Two years into a push to raise test scores in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, some of the most notable gains were concentrated in Memphis — and in schools that were not subject to the state’s most intensive interventions.

The findings come from the new list of 85 “priority schools” — or schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide — released by the Tennessee Department of Education on Tuesday. The list suggests that some schools in the bottom 5 percent in 2012 jumped forward without a significant overhaul, even as the state and local districts revamped other schools’ staffs, programs, and operations.

That outcome raises questions about which strategies are most effective as the state plans to expand its efforts to improve struggling schools. But state and district officials said they were satisfied with their progress up to now, noting that the bottom 5 percent of schools this year scored higher than the bottom 5 percent two years ago.

Indeed, the test score gains by schools in the bottom 5 percent were larger than the state’s overall gains over the last two years.

“This is hard work, but results from the first round … show us that it’s doable,” said state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We’ve seen signs of hope and that’s why we believe it is critical to continue investing in these schools.”

Tennessee promised to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent when it applied for a waiver from some federal education rules. The new list suggests that the goal remains ambitious: A full 50 of the 83 schools on the 2012 priority list are still on the list now, and once again all schools on the priority list serve mostly poor students.

And the trajectories of schools that landed on the first list do not at first glance offer any clear clues about the best approach to boosting performance.

Schools on the priority list can be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District or placed in a special turnaround group within a district, known as an Innovation Zone or Innovation Cluster, which grants schools additional fund as well as new staffs, schedules, academic programs. But not all schools on the list undergo formal changes.

Of the 83 schools on the 2012 list, 17 have been turned into ASD-run schools; 17 joined innovation zones; and nine, including three alternative schools, were closed outright. Thirty-eight schools — including 22 in Shelby County and three Memphis charter schools — received no intervention other than the regular school improvement strategies in place in their districts.

Some schools that fell into each of these categories boosted scores enough to get off the priority list.

The 13 schools in Shelby County’s “Innovation Zone” fared best. Six of them, or nearly half, improved so much that they are no longer at risk of state takeover.

The three Memphis charter schools and nine of the 22 Shelby County Schools that were not closed, placed in the I-Zone or added to the ASD are also no longer on the priority list.

That was true for just one of the four schools that Nashville placed into its “Innovation Cluster.”

In the state-run ASD, two of the six schools the district took over two years ago—one in Memphis, one in Nashville—were no longer in the bottom 5 percent. The schools the district added last year were not eligible to come off of the list due to state rules, while three ASD elementary schools do not appear on the new list because they do not have tested grades.

Of the 85 schools on the new list, just 59 are in Memphis, including nine that the district no longer runs — down from 69 two years ago. Eleven Nashville schools joined the list for the first time.

“The good news is that Memphis had a lot of schools moving off the list,” said Barbara Prescott, a former Memphis City Schools board member who is now the director of the PeopleFirst initiative.

Kevin Woods, the chair of Shelby County Schools’ board, said the strong showing by Memphis schools reflects the fact that the district supports all of its schools, not just the ones that it tries to overhaul.

“The results we are seeing reflect the work of strong and stable school leadership,” he said. “The results are not just in our I-Zone schools but in many of our schools that have chosen to recruit and retain the best teachers while also using data to drive decision-making.”

And the head of the state’s largest teacher group said the new list showed that existing schools could also improve students’ performance without shaking up their staffs.

“The teachers and administrators are going above and beyond trying to provide a quality education to all the students and our public schools,” said Barbara Gray, a former Shelby County Schools administrator and the new president of the Tennessee Education Association, in an interview. “We need to invest in our traditional public schools.”

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said he was satisfied because the previous list had been a wake-up call that moved the state in the right direction.

“When we see a sense of urgency that didn’t exist before, that’s great. The days of having a failing school for a decade are over,” Barbic said. “Part of the value of the ASD is the existential threat of the ASD: If your school doesn’t get better it’s going to get taken away. ”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the percent of schools  that had come off of the priority list in some districts. Some schools in the ASD were not eligible to be removed from the list. It also listed the TEA’s Ms. Gray as a former Memphis City rather than Shelby County administrator. The post has been updated to reflect those changes. 

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach Indiana education officials will ultimately take — that’s up to the state board — but state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said on Monday that she’d like the state to stick with the 10th grade ISTEP test for now, a cheaper and somewhat easier option at this point, she said. It’s an unpopular move, she noted, and it would require tweaking the state’s contract with Pearson, the testing company that created this version of ISTEP. But it gives Indiana officials the needed time to work out the transition.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.