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.


During visit to Memphis, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As Newark top schools chief, she was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, Cami Anderson has left the district and taken her ideas about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices on the road.

This week Anderson is meeting with educators in Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project. She is working with The New Teacher Project on this tour.

In her most comprehensive visit so far, Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”