Ready for TNReady?

New TNReady test will be harder to ‘game,’ say education officials

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
This school year, Tennessee students are taking a new standardized test featuring open-ended questions, as well as traditional multiple-choice questions. The tests will also be administered online.

Test-taking strategies, such as “when in doubt, guess C,” soon will be obsolete in Tennessee, at least when it comes to the state’s end-of-year standardized assessments.

TNReady, the new math and English assessment for grades 3-11, is designed to go deeper than the bubble sheet tests of the past, and be “harder to game,” officials say, meaning that students won’t as easily get points for guessing.

The test also should convey more information about how well students are prepared for the world outside of school — by asking more questions about real-world scenarios and challenging students more than ever before.

“We’re moving into a better test that will provide us better information about how well our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters recently during sneak peek at some of the questions.

The questions are meant to require more than rote memorization, added Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of data and research.

“We recognize the way we have designed TNReady means this is not a test you can game,” she said.

Designed by North-Carolina-based Measurement Inc., TNReady will include several types of questions. Some questions take advantage of the online format and require students to use drag-and-drop tools. Others ask students to write short paragraphs explaining how they solved a problem. And still others are multiple choice, but allow students to select multiple answers. Altogether, the test not only will require students to remember facts they’ve memorized, and imitate procedures they’ve seen their teachers do, but show that they understand concepts on their own.

Tennessee began its transition to a new kind of test in 2010 when the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, with academic benchmarks that focus more on student understanding than on memorizing a formula or procedure that can get the right answer. The state was supposed to move in 2015 to the PARCC, a Common Core-aligned assessment shared by several states, but the legislature voted in 2014 to stick to its multiple-choice TCAP test while state education leaders searched for a test similar to the PARCC but designed exclusively for Tennessee students. In the meantime, several states have switched to tests aligned to the Common Core or similar standards, which are supposed to take aim at one of the oldest and most potent criticisms of tests: that they force teachers to “teach to the test” and focus unduly on memorizing facts and testing tricks that students promptly forget after completing the test.

“These tests have much more emphasis on student reasoning and depth of knowledge than one has seen in the past,” says Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Education and an adviser in developing similar tests in other states.

However, he notes the challenge of developing questions aimed at deeper learning that also can be graded in a timely manner.

“It’s not down to a science yet,” Briggs explained.

The benefit of multiple-choice tests is that they can be scored almost instantly. The downside is they don’t necessarily give insight into how a student knows the answer. “The challenge is, how do you get at a student’s reasoning with items that aren’t fully open-ended?” Briggs asked.

Ilana Horn, a mathematics education professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, said she recently looked through sample questions posted online for parents by the state Department of Education.

“Some of the questions hit the mark,” Horn said, adding that they required students to think deeply about mathematical concepts. She cited a math question for grades 3-5, requiring students to click on a grid to create a figure with an area of 18 square units. A student couldn’t answer correctly merely by memorizing the formula for area.

“If they learned math procedurally and you asked them what area is, they’d say length times width,” she said. “And when you showed them the figure and said, ‘Where’s the area?’ they would blink at you.”

But she said other questions — like one that asks students to choose the answers that round up to eight — still are too focused on procedure.

“The problem is, when kids memorize an equation just for a test, it doesn’t give them deep understandings of what they’re doing mathematically,” Horn said. “And then they forget.”

Although at least some TNReady questions will do a better job of telling teachers what their students know and how they know it, Horn said tests always will be imperfect measures of student learning and teacher quality because they also convey information about cultural backgrounds and poverty.

For example, even the math portion of TNReady will require more literacy skills than the old TCAP did — and how well a student can read and write depends in large part on what a student is exposed to before ever stepping foot in a classroom.

As for why students will need to be strong readers to do well on a math test, Briggs says the idea of what it means to be ready for college or a career is changing.

“Historically, there’s been an attempt to have as little writing as possible on math assessments. You didn’t want to mix up math and verbal skills,” he said. “But our conception of what it means to be mathematically proficient is changing. You have to communicate what you’re doing.”

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.