One and done

Tennessee fires TNReady testmaker, suspends tests for grades 3-8

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks to reporters in April 2016.

The Tennessee Department of Education has terminated its contract with the developer of the state’s new standardized test and suspended testing for students in grades 3-8 this school year due to the company’s inability to deliver testing materials, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday.

However, TNReady testing will continue as planned for the state’s high school students, since those materials already have been delivered.

The announcement delivered the fatal blow to a test that has been plagued with problems beginning with a failed online rollout on Feb. 8 and numerous subsequent delivery delays of printed testing materials. The last straw came last week when Measurement Inc. failed to meet its most recent deadline — to deliver materials by April 22 — in time for testing to begin this week.

As of Wednesday morning, all districts still were waiting on some grade 3-8 materials to arrive, with a total of 2 million documents yet to be shipped, according to a statement from the department.

“Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing,” McQueen said. “We’ve exhausted every option in problem solving with this vendor to assist them in getting these tests delivered. Districts have exceeded their responsibility and obligation to wait for grade 3-8 materials, and we will not ask districts to continue waiting on a vendor that has repeatedly failed us.”

Tennessee is the second state this year to suspend its standardized tests due to problems rooted in technical glitches. Alaska canceled its online tests early this month, due to interruptions caused when a construction worker accidentally cut a fiber optic cable thousands of miles away.

Tennessee’s suspension means that many tenets of test-based accountability will be paused for one year — a leap for a state that insisted on using the new test as the basis for teacher evaluations and student grades, even as the U.S. Department of Education offered flexibility for states making the transition to new tests. High school students’ test scores will be the only ones eligible to be used in teacher evaluations, but only if they boost a teacher’s score, and only if teachers choose to include them.

"Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

“Challenges with this test vendor have not diverted us from our goals as a state,” McQueen said. “Tennessee has made historic and tremendous growth over the past several years. Higher standards and increased accountability have been a key part of this progress. Our work toward an aligned assessment plays a critical role in ensuring that all students are continuing to meet our high expectations and are making progress on their path to postsecondary and the workforce.”

The Department of Education is working with the Tennessee Office of Procurement to expedite the process to find a new test vendor in time for testing next spring.

Though Measurement Inc. already operated under an abbreviated timeline, with only one year to develop and deliver TNReady, McQueen said she is confident that the next round will be better.

“While certainly you have a short timeline, we believe we will have a good test next year, and we will have a strong vendor relationship,” she said at a news conference in Nashville.

She said that, despite chronic challenges with TNReady, Tennessee has a strong foundation for a good test moving forward.

“We have a good test this year. It’s a better test than we’ve had in Tennessee in the past,” she said, adding that whatever vendor the state uses next will incorporate questions developed by Measurement Inc.

“Next year’s test will be better than this year’s test,” she promised.

Gov. Bill Haslam also took an optimistic view of the situation. “The failure of the testing vendor to deliver the tests and meet its own obligations does not take away from the fact that Tennessee has created our own, higher standards, we have an improved assessment fully aligned with those standards, and we remain committed going forward to measuring student performance fairly and ensuring accountability for those results,” Haslam said in a statement.

In an interview this week with Chalkbeat, Measurement Inc. president Henry Scherich said that McQueen’s decision in February to shift from an online test to a paper-and-pencil version put the testing company in a difficult, and even impossible, situation.

McQueen countered Wednesday that the state’s contract with Measurement Inc. always had provisions for paper tests in the case of technical troubles.

Though the state’s original contract with Measurement Inc. was for $108 million, Tennessee has only paid the Durham, N.C.-based company $1.6 million so far for content.

Public reaction to the state’s announcement erupted quickly, with many TNReady critics feeling vindicated, including Tullahoma City School board member Jessica Fogarty, who created an online petition asking the state to suspend Part II testing before it began. More than 2,000 Tennesseans signed the petition.

Fogarty said the state should have terminated the contract sooner. She also noted that the state’s next testmaker, like Measurement Inc., will have only one year to develop a test — a timeline that she called unrealistic.

“If anything, we should learn from our mistakes from this year … especially knowing our state standards will change for next year,” Fogarty said. “There’s more to be resolved with testing in Tennessee. … There’s still a lot more questions to be answered before we can be confident about the future.”

"I think the pause will be taken as a relief at this point."Wayne Miller, Tennessee Organization of of School Superintendents

Others supported the commissioner’s decision.

“I think the pause will be taken as a relief at this point,” said Wayne Miller, director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “With all the accountability that’s centered around the outcome of student assessments, that’s created certainly a less-than-ideal environment.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, expressed disappointment that many third-graders through eighth-graders graders won’t be able to gauge their performance this spring. “Parents and teachers deserve to know how much progress their students have made over the year, and all Tennesseans deserve an annual snapshot of the progress schools and school districts are making,” Woodson said.

District leaders quickly began sharing the news.

Educators and policymakers chimed in too:

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

Chalkbeat staffers Laura Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report.

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.