TNReady or not

Tennessee promises this year will be different when TNReady testing begins, but some educators are anxious

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The countdown to end-of-year testing is posted at the entrance of KIPP University Middle, a Memphis charter school where students have been preparing for Tennessee's TNReady test. The testing window runs from April 17 to May 5 for students in grades 3-11.

Amanda Nixon has waited a long time to see how her fifth-grade students in Memphis perform on Tennessee’s new standardized test.

Last spring, her students at Riverwood Elementary School didn’t get to finish their tests after technical and logistical problems led state officials to cancel the assessment altogether for grades 3-8.

But Tennessee leaders promise a different story next week, with a new testing company, a slightly revised test, and a new game plan that slow-walks the state into online testing. That means classes like Nixon’s, which will use printed materials this time around, should be able to measure their knowledge for the first time on a test based on the Common Core standards, which Tennessee brought to classrooms beginning in 2011. (Next school year, the state is moving to revised, Tennessee-specific standards.)

“I am really excited because I have been wanting an assessment that is aligned to our standards for quite a few years,” Nixon said. “I feel like this has been a change I’ve been waiting on for so long.”

Tennessee’s new TNReady assessments were supposed to provide the feedback that teachers like Nixon hungered for last year when the state’s first online test debuted under the oversight of Measurement Inc., a small testing company based in North Carolina. But it turned out that TNReady wasn’t so ready, and the state’s high schoolers were the only students able to take the tests all the way through.

After the testing fiasco — which began on the first day when students logged on and couldn’t get the test to load — Tennessee has a lot riding on its second try. The state Department of Education has planted its flag in the ground with TNReady and higher standards, touting them as the means to continue Tennessee’s claim of having the nation’s fastest-growing test scores.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she’s confident things will go smoothly during the three-week testing window that ends on May 5. Questar, a large-scale testing company based in Minneapolis, will administer TNReady this time around.

“We’re in constant communication, not only internally to make sure everything goes smoothly, but with our test partner,” McQueen said this week during a school visit in Shelby County.

Already, the possibility of widespread technical failures is off the table because most students will take the test on pencil and paper. Delivery problems also have been ruled out. The testing materials arrived this week in shrinkwrapped packets to schools across the state.

Still, some teachers are concerned whether the test will match what they’ve been told to teach. And that anxiety will hover until this summer when they receive their students’ scores — results that also will figure into teachers’ evaluations.

“Your pay is connected to the way your students perform,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher and president of the local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association union. “We don’t know what to expect, since it’s a new test.”

TNReady has been billed as a significant shift away from multiple-choice tests of yore, when students could guess on every question. Now, students also have to write some answers, as well as complete multiple-choice questions with more than one correct answer.

Veronica White, a learning coach at Sherwood Middle School in Memphis, is mostly confident that her students are prepared for the content. It’s the new format that concerns her. “It’s overwhelming for our kids because they’re just used to multiple choice,” she said.

Her concerns are warranted — and not just due to the format.

Again and again, McQueen has warned teachers, students and parents that TNReady is harder than previous state tests and that scores will go down, just as they did for the state’s high school students last year — and as they have in other states that have shifted to Common Core-based tests.

“It has a depth to it in writing and performance skills that we haven’t had in our state before,” McQueen said this week.

Students taking tests

Leticia Skae, a seventh-grade teacher at Nashville’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet School, taught at a high school last year, so she’s been through the TNReady drill. After her high school students took it, her teacher evaluation score dropped from a 5 to a 4 on a five-point scale. But she wasn’t surprised; she knew the new test was harder and that the rollout was less than ideal.

“I thought that was pretty good, because it was the first year we had the test and there was some craziness with the test,” she said. “That gave me something to work with.”


Here’s how the Tennessee Department of Education wants to weight TNReady in evaluations.


Both Skae and Nixon are teacher fellows with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a think tank aligned closely with the State Department of Education. In that capacity, Skae got a firsthand look at some of the test’s reading passages when she reviewed them for the state, and the experience put some of her concerns at bay.

“We were able to say this is disjointed, or this text doesn’t represent our students, or this test is misleading,” she said. “It gives me faith that there are other teachers doing item review.”

State officials are counting on the next few weeks of testing to get the state back on track by resetting its accountability system and earning back the trust of both educators and the public.

“Overall, we are not only confident at the state level, but we are also seeing a renewed confidence in our districts,” McQueen said Thursday. “They have been working every day for this moment, and they are ready to take this test.”

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.