New ballgame

At long last, phase-out of Common Core is official in Tennessee

The object of years of political tension, backroom posturing and exhaustive examination, the Common Core State Standards are now officially on their way out in Tennessee.

In their place: the Tennessee Academic Standards for math and English language arts, coming to K-12 classrooms across the state in the 2017-18 school year.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Friday for a second and final time in favor of the new standards, culminating 18 months of review and revisions that began with an order from Gov. Bill Haslam, as he sought to mitigate legislative efforts to scrap the Common Core outright.

After all of the political squabbles, the vote seemed almost anticlimactic as members signed off on the transition with little discussion.

Tennessee is the latest state to drop the Common Core, at least in name. Like Indiana, one of the first states to back out, Tennessee didn’t toss the Common Core out entirely, and in fact used it as the backbone of the new benchmarks.

“The Common Core standards were our starting point, but the revisions we have made our significant, and significant enough that we consider them new standards,” said Sara Heyburn, the board’s executive director. “The formatting is different. We’ve dropped standards, we’ve added standards, we’ve made changes to existing standards.”

Standards are grade-specific and subject-specific learning goals that serve as the foundation on which other education decisions are made — from curriculum to assessments. In Tennessee, there are 1,106 standards for English and 930 for math.

The incoming standards can be viewed online, and state officials say the response has been positive.

“We’ve received a lot of supportive emails,” said Laura Encalade, the board’s policy director. “Teachers are excited.”

The board now passes the baton to the Tennessee Department of Education, which will implement the standards. That will involve teacher training and making sure assessments and textbooks are aligned to the new standards, as well as the state’s teacher preparation programs.

Common Core has been in all Tennessee classrooms since 2012 after being approved by the State Board in 2010 as part of the state’s Race to the Top application. This year’s standardized assessment, known as TNReady, is the first to be aligned with Common Core, and state officials have maintained that adjusting the assessment to the new standards won’t be difficult or expensive.

Presented as a high-quality set of standards, Common Core was developed in a multi-state process spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, with the Obama administration offering incentives to states that embraced them. But in Tennessee and many other states, it became the object of political tension stemming from charges of federal overreach, among other things, prompting Haslam in 2014 to order a standards review two years ahead of schedule.

The Tennessee legislature further modified the review process last spring. In total, the final review included two online public reviews, legislative input, and two panels comprised of mostly educators to work through all the feedback.

State Board member Carolyn Pearce, chairman Fielding Rolston, and Commissioner Candice McQueen at the State Board's workshop Thursday.
State Board of Education members and staff meet this week in Nashville.

During the most recent online review last fall, the board heard from more than 2,600 Tennesseans, mostly teachers. Overall, 82 percent of the reviews indicated that the revised standards should be kept. And in all, more than 200,000 reviews and comments have been considered in the 15-month process.

The revisions range from clarifying word changes to sweeping content changes, such as revised learning goals for high school algebra. In English language arts, there’s a new emphasis on speaking and listening standards to address the gap in the current standards that assumes all students come to kindergarten ready to write words and sentences. But the true test of the new standards will be in the classroom.

Now that the new math and English standards are approved, the State Board is focusing on reviews of science and social studies standards. The board recently selected educators to serve on the science standards recommendation committee, and the first public review of social studies standards concludes at the end of the month.

Encalade says the science standards overhaul is particularly exciting. The state has not updated its science standards since 2009, and those were considered subpar. Unlike with math and English, the board started from scratch.

Are you a math or ELA teacher? What do you think of the new standards? How do you think they will impact your classroom? Tell us in the comments or send us an email at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: