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Five things to know about Tennessee’s 2015 test scores, out today

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Gov. Bill Haslam announces the release of state TCAP scores in 2014.

Tennessee officials’ annual test-score announcement on Thursday will mark the end of an era.

This year’s scores are the last for the multiple-choice tests known as TCAP that the state has administered for more than two decades. Next year, students are set to take a new exam that officials say will be a better measure of students’ skills.

The impending test switch doesn’t mean this year’s results aren’t important. Indeed, the scores will be used to evaluate students, teachers, schools, and districts alike.

Here’s what you need to know about the new test scores.

1. The state is coming off of years of gains — and exultance about them.

For the past four years, students’ TCAP scores improved in most subjects. A major question in this year’s scores will be whether and to what degree that trend continues.

Another question is how top officials talk about the scores.

Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam and then-commissioner Kevin Huffman credited the recent gains to a slew of education policy changes triggered by a 2010 state law called “First to the Top,” which included adopting new standards, mandating the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and targeting resources to the neediest schools. But Huffman resigned in January amid sharp criticism about the way he rolled out those initiatives, and Haslam appointed Lipscomb University dean Candice McQueen to replace him.

So far, the new commissioner has stayed the course when it comes to teacher evaluations and other policies instituted by her predecessor. McQueen’s first test score announcement could hint at whether that will continue to be the case, or if she’ll call for new changes to influence next year’s scores.

2. This year’s test was out of step with what was supposed to happen in classrooms.

When Tennessee adopted the Common Core, it also planned for students to start taking an exam that was tied to the standards this year. But lawmakers — concerned about the fact that the standards and exam, known as PARCC, had been developed outside the state — mandated in 2014 that the state hold on to TCAP for another year, then switch to another Tennessee-only exam.

That means this year’s exam was not designed to test what students are expected to know. TCAP was never updated to reflect the standards, only culled to remove questions that explicitly contradict the Common Core.

Officials say the TCAP is still a fair measure of student learning. But they’ve also acknowledged the discrepancy between what the test asks students to know and what teachers are asked to teach.

“We are teaching standards that are challenging students’ higher order thinking skills, and we have a test that’s still a bubble test,” Erin O’Hara, then assistant commissioner for data and research, said last summer. “Until we transition to assessments that are based more fully on the Common Core, we’ll continue to see people struggle on how to adjust.”

That transition begins next year, when students are set to take a new exam known as TNReady that is costing the state $108 million to roll out. That test will be aligned with the Common Core for at least two years, until Tennessee adopts new standards in 2017 after a review that Haslam initiated last year.

“The new TNReady assessment is going to be significantly more meaningful, especially for students and parents, but also for teachers,” said Teresa Wasson, communications director of the advocacy group State Collaborative On Reforming Education, or SCORE. “It’s going to provide a fair opportunity for students to show skills that they’ve learned — real world skills like critical thinking and problem solving, rather than test-taking tricks.”

In other states, the switch to Common Core tests has been accompanied by a drop-off in scores. Wasson said that while that could happen in Tennessee, she was hopeful that the state’s strong showing in 2013 on a national exam that tests skills similar to those called for under the Common Core meant that it would not.

3. For the first time in years, students’ grades held no clues about test scores.

The state provided information about this year’s test scores to teachers so they could factor them into students’ end-of-course grades, as the law has requires them to since 2010. But those “quick scores” did not offer indications of students’ TCAP performance the way they have in the past.

That’s because the way the state calculates quick scores changed mysteriously and quietly since last year. The scores that educators received last month were higher than many expected, given their students’ past test performance and current skill level.

Officials quickly clarified that because of a policy change that they had not communicated publicly, the higher quick scores did not necessarily represent higher proficiency rates. For example, a student in the fourth grade who had quick score of 88 — previously a suggestion of a “proficient” TCAP score — might still be considered “basic” on this year’s test.

As a result, educators have less information than they might have had in the past about test scores. And the confusion around quick scores means that state officials might face a tougher road than in the past to convincing Tennesseans that they are accurately describing changes in students’ skills.

4. The big picture is likely to show significant achievement gaps — and potentially to reflect efforts to close them.

As is true across the country, broad statewide trends tend to mask widely disparate performance among different groups of students.

Last year, the state’s achievement gaps between white students and non-white students narrowed slightly. But the performance gap between low-income students and other students did not shrink, and the gap between students with disabilities and their peers actually grew in a majority of subjects.

This year, the state rolled out a new program, Response to Instruction and Intervention, to target the lowest-performing students in hopes of closing those gaps. The new scores will offer insight into that program’s progress.

5. Lots of important information won’t come out until later.

Unusually, Tennessee releases test scores in three waves each year. The first data dump shows only statewide numbers, which are useful for assessing broad trends but not for answering more detailed questions about local change.

District- and school-level results will be released in the coming weeks. Those will allow for a closer analysis of how individual teachers and students performed, and of how local school improvement efforts, such as the Innovation Zone in Memphis and the state-run Achievement School District, are going.

And an update about how Tennessee students are faring compared to students in other states won’t arrive until this fall, when the latest results of a test known as the nation’s report card are released. That exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, is given to students in all 50 states and has been the only way to compare students in an era of state-specific annual tests. The last time scores came out, in 2013, Tennessee students had made the biggest gains in the country, although students’ absolute scores were still low. Whether Tennessee continues to set the pace now that many other states have begun testing students on the Common Core standards, which more closely reflect what NAEP assesses, is a big question.

Update: The scores are now available. Read about them here. 

What are you looking for in this year’s statewide scores? Let us know in the comments.

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.