previewing TNReady

Why Tennessee’s high school test scores, out this week, matter more — and less — than usual

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

When scores dropped last year for most Tennessee high school students under a new state test, leaders spoke of “setting a new baseline” under a harder assessment aligned to more rigorous standards.

This week, Tennesseans will see if last year’s scores — in which nearly three-quarters of high schoolers performed below grade level — was in fact just a reset moment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning to release the highly anticipated second year of high school scores under TNReady, which replaced the state’s TCAP tests in 2015-16. (Students in grades 3-8 will get TNReady scores for the first time this fall; last year, their tests were canceled because of a series of testing failures.)

Here’s what you need to know about this week’s data dump, which will focus on statewide scores.

1. Last year’s low scores weren’t a big surprise.

Not only was it the first time Tennessee students took TNReady, it also was the first time that they were being tested on new academic standards in math and language arts known as the Common Core, which reached Tennessee classrooms in 2012.

Other states that switched to Common Core-aligned exams also saw their scores plummet. In New York, for example, the proportion of students who scored proficient or higher in reading dropped precipitously in 2013 during the first year of a new test for grades 3-8.

McQueen sought last year to prepare Tennessee for the same experience. After all, she said, the state was moving away from a multiple-choice test to one that challenges students’ higher-order thinking skills. Plus, while Tennessee students had been posting strong scores on the state’s own exam, they had struggled on national tests such as the ACT, raising questions about whether the previous state test was a good measure of students’ skills.

“We expected scores to be lower in the first year of a more rigorous assessment,” McQueen said after only 21 percent of high school students scored on or above grade level in math, while 30 percent tested ready in English and reading.

2. It’s expected that this year’s scores will rise … and it will be a bad sign if they don’t.

Over and over, state officials assured Tennesseans that 2016 was just the start.

“[We] expect that scores will rebound over time as all students grow to meet these higher expectations — just as we have seen in the past,” McQueen said.

She was referring to the state’s shift to Diploma Standards in 2009, when passing rates on end-of-course tests dropped by almost half. But in subsequent years, those scores rose steadily in a “sawtooth pattern” that has been documented over and over when states adopt new assessments and students and teachers grow accustomed to them.

That includes New York, where after the worrisome results in 2013, the percentage of students passing started inching up the following year, especially in math.

In Tennessee, this year’s high school scores will provide the first significant data point in establishing whether the state is on the same track. Higher scores would put the state on an upward trajectory, and suggest that students are increasingly proficient in the skills that the test is measuring. Scores that remain flat or go down would raise questions about whether teachers and students are adjusting to more rigorous standards.

3. There’s lots more scores to come.

This week’s statewide high school scores will kick off a cascade of other TNReady results that will be released in the weeks and months ahead.

Next comes district- and school-level high school scores, which will be shared first with school systems before being released to the public. That’s likely to happen in August.

In the fall, Tennessee will release its scores for students in grades 3-8, who took TNReady for the first time this year after the 2016 testing debacle. While testing went better this year, the state’s new testing company needed extra time to score the exams, because additional work goes into setting “cut scores” each time a new test is given.

A group of educators just concluded the process of reviewing the test data to recommend what scores should fall into the state’s four new categories for measuring performance: below grade level, approaching grade level, on grade level, or mastered. The State Board of Education will review and vote on those recommendations next month.

4. This year’s scores are lower stakes than usual, but that probably won’t last.

For years, Tennessee has been a leader in using test scores to judge students, teachers, and schools. Like most states, it uses the data to determine which schools are so low-performing that they should be closed or otherwise overhauled. It also crunches scores through a complicated “value-added” algorithm designed to assess how much learning that teachers contribute to their students — an approach that it has mostly stuck with as value-added measures have fallen out of favor across the nation. And unusually, the state exam scores are also supposed to factor into final student grades, this year counting for 10 percent.

But the rocky road to the new tests has temporarily diminished how much the scores count. Because preliminary scores arrived late this spring, most districts opted to grade students on the basis of their schoolwork alone.

And because of the testing transition, the scores won’t be given as much weight in this year’s teacher evaluations — an adjustment that lawmakers made to alleviate anxiety about the changes. Test scores will contribute only 10 percent to teachers’ ratings. Depending on the subject, that proportion is supposed to rise to between 15 and 25 percent by 2018-19.

Q&A

At this Perry Township school, progress isn’t just about testing, it’s ‘the work we do every single day in our classrooms’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Principal Star Hardimon, celebrates math progress with fourth-graders at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As Principal Star Hardimon hurried down the hallway of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, she had her sights set on Tom Stahlhut’s fourth grade classroom, where in just minutes students would be packing up for an assembly.

She carried a gold trophy, which is awarded to the classroom that saw the most improvement on math or English practice tests for that month, part of a new program called Evaluate. Kids were already lining up to leave, but she stepped quickly into the room. One student was already on to her surprise.

“Oh, I know what we win!” he said as he and his classmates gathered closely around Hardimon.

“I actually came to your room today because I brought something along for math Evaluate,” Hardimon said. “Mr. Stahlhut’s class went from a 35 percent to a 49 percent. You are the fourth grade winners!”

The students erupted in cheers, waving their arms and jumping up and down as she presented their trophy. These kinds of celebrations aren’t unusual at MacArthur, Hardimon said, and they were especially significant this year given the gains from last year.

MacArthur, which has 805 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a B grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017. The school’s test passing rates jumped 10.8 percentage points to 63.3 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost three-quarters of MacArthur students qualify for subsidized meals, and a little more than one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardimon to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We fully celebrated. We made a banner and every person, from the custodian, cafeteria — every person that supports kids in our building in any way signed the banner, and every person got a cookie, and we did a cookie with the letter “A” on it. We cheered and had some fun in the lunchroom.

Us earning this A wasn’t about the days we took the test. It was about the work we did every single day in our classrooms, at home, during homework, reading on the weekends — it was everything.

What do you think made the difference?

Well, when we initially got our scores back from the previous year, we were bummed. So we really tried to think about what do we need to do, how do we need to look at this test compared to what we’re doing everyday. And I know it’s a new test and there are some different things, and I don’t want to make excuses, so we just needed to figure out what to do.

Every month I met with grade levels to just talk about the data, talk about what we’re doing, talk about what we look like. And teachers would fill out their data tracking sheets, and everybody was really in tune.

The other thing that we really did is in January, we did an all-hands-on-deck, and for third, fourth and fifth grade we pulled our special education, our E.L., our intervention, and our master teachers to pull groups of students out of classrooms so we could work on specific skills during that intervention time. And we also looked at some of the content area time to really home in so kids could get a real 20 minutes of direct instruction on a particular skill. And that’s something that we had not done in that way. And we’re pretty pleased with it.

I really honestly feel that that effort by everyone to really focus in on that bottom 25 percent (of students) regardless of E.L., special education — whatever their needs are — and our general education kids fell into that as well. I think that’s where we earned those points, was with that group.

What is your school community and culture like?

Douglas MacArthur is a very a community-driven school. I have teachers in the building right now who were students here. I have grandparents who always come in and say, “Oh, my kids and now my grandkids go here.” That comes with a lot of pluses and minuses, but the good thing is the people, they believe in this school. They want the best for kids and they’re really willing — they stay for after school activities and they get involved in all our programs.

Our demographic has been changing. Free and reduced lunch numbers since I’ve been here have increased significantly, and this is my fifth year. Just under half of our kids are English-learners, some coming from as part of our refugee community. We have a very small population of African-Americans, however we have more than when I first came, and then the rest are Caucasian. We do have a small population of Hispanic students, and we have the most number of Hispanic students than we did even five years ago. So our community is definitely changing. It used to be Caucasian, mostly.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like i’m a very instructional leader. I try and model behavior in almost everything because if I’m not doing it, then I certainly don’t expect a staff member to do it, or a student to do it. So really modeling and holding myself accountable at a very high level. I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that reflection piece needs to be transparent.

I feel like I try really hard to model a professionalism, a pride in something, working hard everyday. That work ethic is important — it’s important for students to see, it’s important for parents to see. They’re trusting us with their babies, and that’s a pretty big deal, so they have to trust me. I think about my own children, and the thoughts I’ve had about administrators that have led their schools, and that has helped me.

Movers & shakers

Former Tennessee Teacher of the Year will lead citywide reading program

PHOTO: Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang
Karen Vogelsang, the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read.

Three years after winning the state’s top award for teaching, Karen Vogelsang is leaving the classroom to lead a citywide early literacy program.

Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read, a Christian volunteer organization that matches reading tutors and mentors with struggling second grade readers.

“When we’re presented as teachers with the opportunity to broaden our impact beyond our school, we need to take that seriously,” Vogelsang told Chalkbeat, adding she initially turned the job down a few months ago. “It’s not just the 80 second graders here at Winridge, but the thousands of second graders in Shelby County Schools.”


Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis


Vogelsang spent 15 years as a banker before switching careers to education in 2003. She became Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. And earlier this year, she stepped into a hybrid role on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s team to interject a teacher’s voice in policy decisions for Shelby County Schools. Since then, the teacher advisory council has grown to 17 teachers across the district, she said.

Though she won’t be with the district anymore, Vogelsang will still be working toward goals set out by Shelby County Schools in her new position. ARISE2Read, which has mentors in 30 Memphis schools, aims to catch up struggling second grade readers by taking them out of the classroom for 30 minutes once a week with a mentor.

Shelby County Schools has a goal of having 90 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. In 2014, it was only 30 percent with a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020. According to early 2017 results from a nationally standardized test (MAP), about 50 percent of third grade students were proficient.

“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it on the manpower of Shelby County Schools alone,” Vogelsang said. “The fact that this was so focused was part of the attraction (to ARISE2Read) and addresses a need we have in the district.”

The organization also has mentors and students in Fayette, Jackson/Madison, Tipton and Gibson counties and has done training in Knoxville and Houston.

Vogelsang’s class will be turned over to a co-teacher who has been in her classroom since taking on the hybrid role, and she will begin at ARISE2Read on Jan. 4.