measuring up

Decline in reading scores a dark spot in otherwise sunny test score trends

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam present statewide TCAP results for 2015 in early July. For the most part, scores went up statewide. But at individual schools, it can be hard to explain why.

Even as Tennessee students continued to make substantial gains in math and science this year, their reading test scores remain stubbornly low, state education officials announced Thursday.

And officials began to lay the groundwork for declines next year, when the state for the first time will administer a test that reflects the Common Core standards.

Just 48.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 passed the state’s proficiency bar in reading, down from a peak of 50.5 percent in 2013 and 49.5 percent last year.

The trajectory was very different in math, where 55.6 percent of students in grades 3-8 met the state’s proficiency standards this year. The 4.3 point single-year gain in math means that Tennessee students have increased their math proficiency rate by 21 points since 2010, in a shift that a national exam that compares student performance across states has borne out.

“We have a lot to celebrate in these results,” Gov. Bill Haslam said at a press conference in Nashville. “I also want to use these results to examine where we need to improve.”

(Here’s our preview of the new test scores and what they mean — and don’t mean.)

Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said they saw promising signs in higher-than-ever math scores, across-the-board high school gains, and a narrowing of the performance gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.

As he did last year, Haslam credited the gains to policy changes triggered by a 2010 state law called “First to the Top.” Those included adopting new standards, mandating the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and targeting resources to the neediest schools.

But he and McQueen said they could not explain why reading test scores had inched downward for the second year in a row and now are essentially the same as they were before any of the policy changes took place.

The fact that students with disabilities took the regular state exams, instead of an alternative test, for the first time this year  might have impacted literacy scores, but not much, McQueen said.

“We have a clear trend that has nothing to do with that,” she said.

She and Haslam did not announce any major policy changes to address the lagging literacy scores but did say that the state would focus more on English language learners, students with special needs, and early childhood education.

“We have seen reading scores remain relatively flat in early grades over the past five years, yet we know this is one of the most critical skills we can equip our students with for success in life,” McQueen said. “It’s our job to ensure that Tennessee students are prepared to take advantage of opportunities after graduation, and we must continue to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to reach all students.”

McQueen attributed gains by black, Hispanic, Native American, and poor students in all high school subjects and 3-8 math and reading to higher expectations and to a new program, called Response to Instruction and Intervention or RTI-squared, that is meant to ensure that schools reach their most struggling students.

“We’re seeing growth we expected to happen when you use RTI appropriately and you also begin to transition to what the belief of ‘all means all’ does to actually impact behavior,” she said.

High school scores had the most significant growth, suggesting that previous gains in elementary and middle school grades have begun to bear fruit.

The gains were sharpest for Algebra II, considered to be a make-or-break course for students’ future success in college. More than 54 percent of students in 2015 performed at or above grade level, compared to less than a third in 2011 and almost 48 percent last year.

McQueen said the advances could be tied to higher expectations. The state has ramped up efforts to graduate more students on time and has made college more attainable through Tennessee Promise, which allows graduating high school seniors to attend two years of community college for free.

“Our high school students see what’s next,” McQueen said. “They see the possibilities, and their ability to do that.”

McQueen said she expects to see test scores fall across the board next year, when the state transitions to TNReady, a Common Core-aligned test that is supposed to assess higher-order thinking skills and, unlike this year’s tests, will require students to provide their own answers rather than simply select from multiple choices.

The new test will more accurately reflect what students have learned, she said, adding that she expects to see growth after the first year. (Those trends have played out in most states that have already started giving tests that reflect the new standards.)

“Our upward trends as a state show a story of progress,” she said. “We know we have more work to do, but this is a great story for Tennessee.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.