pinch hitters

U.S. education chief: Without TNReady scores, Tennessee should look elsewhere for accountability

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor
Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

U.S. Secretary of Education John King said Monday that Tennessee must look to other indicators to evaluate its academic performance this year after canceling its new standardized assessment last week for most students.

King, who was the keynote speaker at the Education Writers Association national conference in Boston, said the state can look to statistics such as graduation rates and absenteeism to fill the void due to the cancellation of testing in grades 3-8 this year.

“I think Tennessee will navigate through. We’ve been in close contact with the state Education Department there. They will navigate through as other states have,” King said.

King was responding to a question about the decision by Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to pull the plug on the state’s new TNReady test in elementary and middle schools due to chronic testing problems — first with the failed rollout of the state’s first online assessment due to too few servers, then with the testing vendor’s inability to print and deliver paper testing materials to all grades in all schools this spring.

King, who has served as the nation’s education chief since January, suggested that the computer glitches are an inherent part of the transition to online testing, and likely will happen in other states too.

“We have to accept that as part of the switch to computer-based assessments, there will be occasional technical challenges,” he said. “The most important thing in the testing process itself is that states are diligent about trying to solve the technical issues.”

King pointed to Nevada, which had technical problems when switching to online testing last school year. While Nevada did not cancel its tests, officials there opted to exclude that test score data from the state’s school accountability system.

In Tennessee, test scores are used as the primary accountability measure for everything from evaluating teachers to determining achievement gaps among different student groups — the latter of which remains a federal requirement under the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Tennessee was one of the first states to embrace using student achievement in teacher evaluations, and has been held up by King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, for its test-based accountability system.

"We have to accept that as part of the switch to computer-based assessments, there will be occasional technical challenges."John King. U.S. Secretary of Education

But TNReady woes have chipped away at Tennessee’s structure of accountability. After online testing was scrapped on the first day of testing in February, Gov. Bill Haslam proposed allowing teachers to discount this year’s scores from their evaluation, which the legislature later approved. Then, the State Department of Education announced that this year’s scores could not place low-performing schools on the state’s “priority list” next year — the list that makes them eligible for state intervention.

Subsequent delivery delays of printed testing materials led the department to propose eliminating district performance designations based on this year’ test scores, such as “exemplary” or “in need of improvement.”

The state and districts still will collect all available student performance information, from the first part of TNReady testing completed in March, and from high schools, which received materials in time to test this spring. All reportable data, such as graduation rates, average ACT scores, and high school test scores, still will be publicly reported on the state’s annual report card in the fall.

 

Correction: May 12, 2016: This story corrects a previous version to show that Nevada received a federal waiver to exclude state assessment data in the 2014-15 school year from its school rating system. The previous version incorrectly stated that Nevada officials chose to use that year’s test score data as part of its accountability system.

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.