After scores fall, one ASD school says sole focus on Common Core hurt TCAP results

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Jonathon Verry and Trumaine Gholson in a math class at Aspire's new school at Coleman Elementary.

When Kristin Cornwell, a 4th grade teacher at Aspire Hanley 1, a charter school in Orange Mound, started evaluating her students in math this year, she thought they were the best prepared of any group she’d seen in her four years at the school.

“I saw a huge difference in students’ conceptual understanding of math,” she said. “They could explain why they were doing different things.”

But those same fourth graders’ scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, the state’s standardized test, were significantly lower than the scores of students who had been there the year before.

In 2013, Memphis public school Hanley Elementary was taken over by the state-run Achievement School District and split into two Aspire charter schools, with new staffs and programs but similar enrollment, on the same campus. Since the takeover, the percent of students scoring proficient or advanced on state tests has dropped precipitously.

In 2012-13, before the takeover, 22.7 percent of Hanley Elementary’s tested students scored proficient or advanced in math and 10.4 percent were proficient or advanced in reading.

In 2013-14, 9.9 percent of students at Hanley 1 scored proficient or advanced in math, and just 5.2 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. At Hanley 2, 6.3 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math and 4.7 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. That placed both schools in the state’s lowest category for student growth in both subjects.

Aspire’s scores were the lowest in the ASD, which takes over schools academically ranked in the bottom 5 percent of in the state in an attempt to improve them.

School leaders’ and teachers’ explanation: Aspire chose to prepare students only for tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee adopted in 2010, rather than for TCAP, which was written to match an older set of standards. Aspire said both the content of the TCAP and its form (bubble-in, pencil-and-paper tests) were different than what students practiced all year (online tests, more open-ended questions).

“The theory was that we were going to make progress by jumping into Common Core,” said Allison Leslie, the director of Aspire’s schools in Memphis. “That didn’t prove to be the case. We’re disappointed but not surprised.”

Ilana Horn, a professor at the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, said in an email that Aspire’s attributing the drop in scores to Common Core standards did seem surprising: “The analyses I have seen say that Common Core Standards are at a higher level than the old Tennessee state standards. If they had prepared the children for CCSS, they would presumably be ahead in the curriculum.”

She said there could be some validity to the explanation if the new tests were less “reflective of what they had done in class” or if the new, more rigorous standards were less accessible to students.

Tennessee had planned to begin using PARCC, an online test tied to the Common Core standards, rather than TCAP, starting this school year. Rather than spending a single year after the takeover at Hanley preparing students for TCAP, Aspire’s school leaders went all in with PARCC preparation.

Then the state’s legislature voted last spring to require the state to administer TCAP in 2014-15, and to reevaluate whether to use PARCC at all.

The state has adjusted the TCAP in an effort to make the tests more closely aligned to the Common Core, which aims to focus on fewer subjects in more depth each year. Average scores across Tennessee rose this year in most tested subjects.

Now Aspire is tying its curriculum to the standards tested on TCAP and specifically preparing students for TCAP-style questions, hoping to boost scores in the next round of tests. “We’re going to get the tested standards in,” said Megan McGrail, the principal at Hanley 1.

Most Tennessee schools did not go as far as Aspire in moving toward PARCC-style assessment and away from TCAP preparation. But schools across Tennessee have been in a state of limbo, aligning lessons and instruction with one set of standards while being evaluated using a test that was initially designed based on another.

The state’s largest teachers association and both the Nashville and Shelby County superintendents have said the discrepancy between test and standards is a problem. Chris Barbic, superintendent of the ASD, said in an interview, “we’ve got to know that the assessment we’re being held accountable to—teachers, schools, districts—lines up with what the state’s expecting us to teach.”

Shelby County Schools, and most districts in the state, provided a curriculum guide tied both to the old and new standards. “If a teacher followed the pacing guide, they would have been prepared,” said Shawn Page, the principal of White Station Middle School in Shelby County Schools. Students at White Station are assessed throughout the year with tests similar in format to the TCAP while also practicing the more open-ended questions favored on Common Core-based tests, he said.

Aspire’s dramatic drop in scores will have fewer consequences for adults in the building than similar changes might have in other schools: Unlike Shelby County Schools and most other districts in the state, Aspire does not tie TCAP scores to teacher evaluations. And since it was just taken over by the ASD, the school is not facing another dramatic restructuring for at least two more years.

But, Cornwell said, “the painful thing is, even though that’s not Aspire’s evaluation, test scores are still how the state of Tennessee values and puts a number on a teacher and a school,” she said.

Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, in Orange Mound.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, in Orange Mound.

Leslie said that internal surveys of the employee, student and parent satisfaction and students’ scores on other reading assessments led her to believe that the school is on the right track and will do better on the next round of tests. The school also uses a blended learning model that uses online and classroom curriculum McGrail said would prepare students for online assessments, if and when they replace the current test.

“What we did is disruptive,” Leslie said. “We think we’ll see incremental changes. It’s like the tortoise-and-the-hare.”

Cornwell said that she had seen the school shift from focusing mainly on TCAP preparation to introducing Common Core-style instruction in 2012-13; and then moving entirely to Common Core under new leadership. “I have been here long enough for the pendulum to swing all the way.”

“Every year it’s that balance of, how do we teach that deep conceptual understanding we know is best for kids and will prepare them for college—and still get them ready so they can prove to the state of Tennessee that they’re growing and learning?”


defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.