Are Children Learning

Educators, not politicians, take the reins in developing Tennessee’s new academic standards

PHOTO: G. Tatter
The Common Core standards for high school math adorn the walls of Christi Root's classroom at Monterey High School in Putnam County.

Though Tennessee’s review of the Common Core State Standards was borne out of fiery rhetoric and political maneuvering, the newest panel of reviewers in the process are quietly focusing on small changes to the once-controversial standards.

Members of the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee hope the revisions, which were proposed by a panel 42 educators appointed by the State Board of Education, will make the standards more developmentally appropriate for students and easier for educators to understand and teach.

The committee, which convened its second meeting Tuesday in Nashville, is scrutinizing the work of the revision panel of educators who spent the past four months culling through public feedback on the Common Core and revising and rewriting standards as needed. The public input was collected during a six-month online review open to all Tennessee residents and completed in April.

“This is an exciting time,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools and a member of the recommendation committee, whose members were appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell. “It just really makes you proud that this kind of work is being done by educators across the state.”

That sentiment is in stark contrast to the political furor only a year ago over the Common Core, a set of K-12 academic standards in math and English language arts that set out what students should know and be able to do. Billed as a move to higher expectations, tougher tests and significant instructional shifts in the classroom, they were adopted in Tennessee in 2010 and implemented beginning in 2012. However, a political backlash erupted over charges of nationalized education reform at the expense of homegrown values and input. The hullabaloo led to the current multi-layered standards review process, including the work of the Standards Recommendation Committee, created under a bill approved by the legislature earlier this year.

The committee heard Tuesday from several educators who helped revise the standards over the summer, including Joseph Jones, math coordinator for Cheatham County Schools. He said it helped that most participants in the first period of public review last winter and spring wanted to keep most of the standards.

“That just told me that our initial thinking was right in that the standards were pretty good,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like we were starting from ground zero.”

All of the members of the newest committee are educators, like the teachers who did most of the heavy lifting in revisions.

There was no dissension during the first part of Tuesday’s meeting, which focused on the modified version of the English standards. The educator-reviewers kept most of the writing standards, even ones that had been considered too challenging for their grade level, but added new standards to help support teachers and students.

They also added standards related to literacy, a competency that has befuddled educators across Tennessee because the state’s poor reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged in recent years. And they rephrased standards to make them more understandable. For example, for standards that included suggestions of what materials teachers could use to teach the standard, the reviewers removed the examples.

“Let’s focus on the skill and the point,” said Susan Groenke, a professor of English education at the University of Tennessee, who helped revise the English standards. “We don’t want to tell teachers what literature to teach.”

Though the recommendation committee members and educator-reviewers all called upon their own classroom experiences, they were quick to refer to the public feedback, considered key to the review process.

Allowing the public to be involved will mitigate mistrust that surrounded the Common Core, said Sharen Cypress, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Freed-Hardeman University and a member of the Standards Recommendation Committee selected by Haslam.

“When people lack knowledge or information about what students are learning, they fear it,” she said. “There will be no problem implementing these standards.”

The educators’ revisions went online on Tuesday and will be open for another round of public comment for one month. Then, the 12-member Standards Recommendation Committee will consider the second round of public feedback before sending its recommendations to the State Board of Education about what the final standards should look like.

In addition to feedback from the public, the committee will receive a report on the standards from higher education officials in the next month. The proposed version of the standards will be previewed at public meetings across Tennessee.

While the review process was designed to be transparent, it has so many layers that stakeholders might need a map to keep up.

The process began last fall when the governor ordered the public review of the standards amid growing calls for repeal of the Common Core, a lynchpin of Tennessee’s education overhaul that began when the state threw its hat in the ring for the federal Race to the Top competition, and the money that went with it.

While Ramsay had predicted that Common Core would not survive during the last legislative session, it did. Through a compromise pounded out, at least in part through the work of Americans for Prosperity, a well-funded conservative advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., the legislature opted instead to insert an additional layer into the governor’s standards review process by creating the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee.

The committee was a concession to both Common Core supporters, who believed the standards were a rigorous improvement on the benchmarks used before 2010, and its ardent detractors, who viewed the standards as federal overreach. The compromise specified that Common Core be “reviewed and replaced,” a directive previously avoided by Haslam but championed by Common Core opponents, including Ramsey.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: