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.”

On Close watch

State’s lowest performing schools and districts taking hard look at this year’s test data

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

Testing data for Colorado’s longest-struggling schools and districts show mixed trends.

Results released Thursday are from exams students took last spring, before the State Board of Education approved corrective action plans for the five districts and a dozen schools that had run out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock.

The Pueblo City 60 district saw a decline across many tests and grade levels while Westminster Public Schools showed improvements in 10 of 14 English and math tests.

Those districts, like other districts and schools facing state intervention this past school year, were already making changes before their state improvement plans were finalized. Much of that work is incorporated into the plans.

Thursday’s test data will be used toward a new state rating, one which these districts and schools must improve soon. The state plans gave most schools and districts until 2019 to earn a higher quality rating for face potential consequencs. But some, including the Adams County School District 14 and Adams City High School in Commerce City, must have a higher rating by 2018.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

The district of almost 7,500 students saw some improvements, but still is posting very low scores. For instance, 9.3 percent of fifth-grade students met the state’s learning goals in math, up from 7.9 percent last year. In that area, the district did better than the state, as fewer fifth graders did well on math tests statewide than last year.

At Adams City High School, growth scores, which represent how much students learned in a year compared to similar-performing students, decreased for both math and English. The school had an interim principal for much of the school year, which led to a student walkout in the spring.

Overall, Adams 14’s proficiency numbers are still lower than state averages.

Of these low-performing districts, the Pueblo City 60 district, which faced state action only for some of its schools but not as a district, was the only one that had decreases in growth scores for both English and math tests.

In English, the growth score was 43, down from 47 last year. That means students this year scored on average better than just 43 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores last year.

The Pueblo district saw an increase in how many students met or exceeded expectations in eighth-grade English. One possible reason officials pointed to: innovation schools granted flexibility from some rules and state laws.

Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesman, said district officials are relatively pleased with the improvements they see in the data, especially when broken down by school.

“Given that there’s just two years of growth data, some of the fluctuation could be expected,” Sprouse said. “We see this as we’re maintaining the progress we made last year.”

Sprouse noted that two of the three schools that faced the state board earlier this year for low performance saw big increases in the number of students meeting math expectations.

“Some progress is starting to take place,” Sprouse said. “The assessment office is already working with principals to really dig into that data.”

Westminster Public Schools, another district that faced state action this year and is now on a three-year improvement plan, saw more improvements than the other districts on the state watchlist.

“We are pleased to see our focus on high expectations and personalized learning for all students is paying off,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said in a statement.

The Westminster district, however, was also one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. Last year, there was no gap in growth on English tests.

Last year, about 40 percent of students in Westminster schools were English language learners.

In Adams 14 schools, where about 46 percent of students are English language learners, those students posted higher growth scores than native English speaking students.

Westminster did increase their overall rate of growth according to median growth scores, and reached above 50 for English language arts.

Aurora Public Schools, the only district at risk of state action next year, posted increases and also got one growth score above 50, which is critical to catch students up when they are behind grade level.

Here’s how districts that ran out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock — or districts that had schools that did — compared:

Shrinking gaps

Denver Public Schools posts record gains on latest state tests

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference Thursday.

Denver students made more academic progress on state English and math tests last year than ever before, and the overall percentage of third- through ninth-graders who scored at grade level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, test results released Thursday show.

It’s a significant feat for the state’s largest school district, which ten years ago lagged far behind.

Notably, the diverse district’s academic growth was driven by low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners. Students in those groups made progress at a faster rate than students not into those groups, shrinking the growth gaps between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the results “wonderful.” He said that while the district’s gaps “are still large and concerning, it’s nice to see them moving in the right direction.”

Overall, more Denver Public Schools students met or exceeded state expectations on most tests in most grades. Among the biggest increases was the percent of third-graders at grade level in literacy. In 2015-16, 32 percent of DPS third-graders met that bar. In 2016-17, it jumped to 38 percent, a 6 percent increase. The statewide average was 40 percent.

Boasberg credited the district’s focus on early literacy, and its monetary investment in new curriculum and more training for early childhood teachers and paraprofessionals. A tax increase approved by voters in November includes $6.8 million to continue those efforts.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“We’ve never had growth like that in third-grade reading,” Boasberg said.

Denver students also continued to outpace their peers across Colorado in academic growth. The state uses “median growth percentile” scores to gauge how much students learn each year.

A growth score higher than 50 means students are learning at a faster rate than peers who started the year at the same academic level as them. A growth score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate than their academic peers.

Denver’s overall growth score in literacy last year was 57, up from 56 the year before. In math, the overall growth score was 53, up from 51.

“It all starts with our teachers and our school leaders,” Boasberg said of the improvements.

The district has expanded to nearly all schools an initiative that allows successful teachers to teach part-time and coach their colleagues part-time, and Boasberg said the latest scores are proof that helping teachers improve helps students, too.

Mixed results for reform efforts

Denver is nationally known for its education reform efforts, which include granting charter school-like autonomy to district-run schools, and replacing persistently low-performing schools with schools officials deem more likely to succeed.

The school board this past school year voted to close three long struggling elementary schools, including Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver. Board members chose as a replacement a program proposed by leaders of nearby McGlone Academy. The district has held up McGlone as a rare example of a successful turnaround school.

But this year, McGlone’s scores faltered. On most tests, fewer students met expectations last year than the year before. Growth scores fell, too, to 41 in literacy and 37 in math.

Amesse posted higher growth scores: 58 in literacy and 49 in math.

Boasberg said he remains confident in McGlone’s leaders. McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’s excited by the growth at Amesse. She pointed to other measures of success at McGlone, including low student suspensions and high teacher retention.

“McGlone, over multiple years, has had very strong growth,” Boasberg said. “This year, their growth wasn’t as strong. Part of that was all of the time and effort that the school put into planning for and working with the community around the Amesse turnaround.”

He added that, “I think you have extraordinary teachers and leadership at McGlone who have an exceptional track record, and I’m confident they’ll have strong growth this year.”

Boasberg and other officials held a celebratory press conference Thursday at the Manual High School campus, which is also home to McAuliffe Manual Middle School, a replication of the successful McAuliffe International School. Both are innovation schools, which means they’re run by the district but enjoy flexibilities with scheduling, teacher hiring and firing, and more.

McAuliffe International has for years posted high test scores and had above-average growth. The school is not as diverse as the district as a whole — just 18 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, and 37 percent are students of color.

McAuliffe Manual opened last year with sixth grade in an effort to bring high-performing middle schools to northeast Denver, a neighborhood that historically lacked them. Nearly six in 10 students qualified for subsidized lunches, and seven in 10 were students of color.

While McAuliffe Manual trailed McAuliffe International in the percentage of students at grade-level, its growth scores were nearly as high: 72 in both literacy and math, compared to 75 in literacy and 74 in math at McAuliffe International.

There was more good news for three previously low-performing elementary schools — Goldrick, Harrington and Schmitt — in the midst of school turnaround. New principals spent the 2015-16 school year soliciting opinions and crafting plans to improve academic performance at the schools while other leaders handled day-to-day operations — a strategy known as “year zero.”

In 2016-17, the first year the new principals and their improvement plans were in place, growth scores at all three schools shot up by as much as 24 points.

Another turnaround school also showed remarkable progress. The University Prep Steele Street charter school, which replaced struggling Pioneer Charter School last year, boasted growth scores of 84 in literacy and 91 in math. The math growth was the highest in the state.

The test scores at four schools that are part of another DPS experiment, an “innovation zone” that gives the schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools, were a mixed bag.

Two of the schools, Creativity Challenge Community and Denver Green School, posted increasingly strong scores on most tests and showed high academic growth.

But two other schools, Ashley Elementary and Cole Arts and Science Academy, saw low growth and slipping scores. The median growth percentile in math at Ashley was 32, well below the district average. At Cole, where just 5 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade-level, it was 17.

Boasberg said the scores at those two schools are concerning. But he said he appreciates what the innovation zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, is doing. District officials have talked about inviting other innovation schools to form similar zones.

“They have some very strong leadership at the zone,” Boasberg said, “and we recognize that for any one school, you are going to have some ups and downs.” He cautioned against reading too much into the scores of Ashley and Cole.

Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, said it’s become clear that Ashley and Cole, which serve a more at-risk population, need a different type of support than the other two schools. Zone leaders are working to help them figure out how to use their increased autonomy — and freed-up funding — to boost student achievement, she said.

“We have confidence in these school leaders,” Roberts said, “and we will provide additional support in coaching hours and oversight over how their resources are used.”

Narrowing gaps

About two-thirds of Denver’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty, and about 77 percent are non-white. More than a third are English language learners.

The district has in the past struggled to close wide gaps between how much students in those groups learn each year and how much students not in those groups learn.

White students, non-low-income students and non-English language learners have historically posted higher proficiency scores and higher growth scores, which continues to be the case. But their growth scores last year remained relatively flat.

Meanwhile, the growth scores for students of color, low-income students and English language learners increased by several points for every group in each subject.

In literacy, Latino students had a growth score of 54 and black students had a score of 53. White students had a score of 64, meaning the gaps were 10 points and 9 points, respectively. Those are smaller than in 2015-16, when the gap for both black and Latino students was 13 points.

The gaps in math last year were bigger than the gaps in literacy. Black and Latino students had a growth score of 50 in math, while white students had a score of 63, a 13-point gap. However, that gap also shrunk from the year before, when it was 16 points.

The smallest gap last year was between English language learners and native speakers in literacy. State statistics, which include “exited” English language learners who no longer need services in the count of English language learners, show no gap at all.

But DPS statistics, which break exited English language learners into their own category, show a 3-point gap between English language learners and non-English language learners.

The district has in recent years provided more training for educators who teach English language learners, worked harder to ensure all eligible students get those classes and made efforts to encourage bilingualism and biliteracy, Boasberg said.