Are Children Learning

TNReady delay heightens parent concerns, strains lesson plans

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shamaine Walls reviews TNReady practice questions with his niece Angelica Walls and nephew Mario Taylor at a TNReady information event sponsored in Memphis by the Tennessee Education Association.

The relief of having more time to help her son prepare for Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment following a statewide testing delay soon turned into frustration as Shelia Lumpkin looked at the practice questions.

“For some of the parents who came up in the ‘80s, we were not faced with something like this,” said Lumpkin, calling the math and English questions difficult to understand.

Parent Shelia Lumpkin looks at TNReady practice questions.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parent Shelia Lumpkin looks at TNReady practice questions.

The parent of an eighth-grader, Lumpkin was among about 60 Memphis parents gathered Saturday at Oakhaven Middle School to hear how parents can help their students prepare for the rigor.

“You have to do … more than what your parents did for you,” explained Rhonda Thompson, coordinator of instructional advocacy for Tennessee Education Association, which sponsored the event.

Thompson emphasized student attendance — a central tenet of what can make the difference between passing and failing the test. “That’s why they need to be here at school and on task,” she said.

TNReady is Tennessee’s new measuring stick for student achievement and has received unprecedented attention both in Tennessee and across the nation in the wake of a failed rollout of the new online test on Feb. 8. The failure means most students will take the test more than a month late because districts now must revert to paper-and-pencil tests that must be ordered and delivered to schools.

The delay has left teachers such as Ryan Winn scrambling to restructure their lesson plans for the next month.

“We were very intentional about using material that would be directly aligned with what they would be tested. … We planned down to the minute,” said Winn, a seventh-grade math teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School. “Now we have multiple teachers who schedules have been thrown out.”

Fairley High School had developed a month-long schedule to share 150 computers among 575 students for the online test. The shift back to paper-based tests means TNReady will be completed in one week, though on a significantly delayed schedule.

“It’s been living in limbo. It’s just a different ballgame.” said principal Zach Samson of Fairley, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

Emma Karpowicz, a Fairley Algebra II teacher, said the testing changes were a letdown for students, too.

“Having a clear date in mind sets it up for them. The uncertainty is confusing for them,” she said.

The new schedule for TNReady, which is administered in two parts, now means “the kids aren’t going to have as much time after spring break” to learn new material for the second part “and very little review time,” Karpowicz said. Students studying for the ACT are even more impacted as the timelines collide.

Administrators have noted the financial implications, including costs incurred to administer the test online and instructional time to teach keyboard skills. In Shelby County Schools, the price tag is about $5 million, mostly to purchase computers, according to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

But state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the online test will return next year, so technical investments won’t be wasted.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.