TNReady preview

The early data is in. Tennessee scores dropped for grades 3-8, too.

PHOTO: TDOE
Members of the Tennessee State Board of Education listen to a July presentation about TNReady scores by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

Get ready for lower test scores for Tennessee’s younger students, state officials said Friday.

Preliminary results show that scores fell this year after the state introduced a new standardized test. Only about a third of students in grades 3-8 scored on or above grade level in English language arts, while a slightly higher percentage passed in math.

The decreases, which mirrored last year’s results for high schoolers, were expected after students took a new test that state officials say is harder and aligned to more rigorous academic standards.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen emphasized that the state’s TNReady assessment offers a more accurate picture of student performance that is consistent with national testing.

“We want our families and our students to know they should not be discouraged. We are not going backwards,” McQueen told the State Board of Education during a morning conference call.

“Like last year with our (high school) tests, this is a reset moment for grades 3-8,” she said.

The data reviewed on Friday is preliminary and the full scores won’t be released until the fall. But the results, discussed as the State Board set the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level, offer an early glimpse at how younger students did.

The new proficiency cutoffs mark a milestone in Tennessee’s journey to be more honest and transparent about student performance. In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a blistering rebuke of Tennessee for saying that most of its students were performing well, even as results from National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed otherwise.

Ever since, Tennessee has been raising its academic standards and moving to a test that state officials say is more rigorous, harder to game, and aligned to the tougher benchmarks. The graphic below shows how Tennessee had closed the gap between state and national comparisons as of 2015, before moving to TNReady.

There were bumps along the way. The state has had to set testing thresholds for TNReady twice because only high schoolers got to take TNReady during its inaugural year. McQueen canceled the 2016 test for grades 3-8 and fired the testmaker due to technical and logistical problems as most districts tried to move to online testing.

State Board Chairman F. Fielding Rolston called the new scoring benchmarks, known as cut scores, “a significant step forward.”

“This is really the result of 10 years of hard work to get the standards where they need to be,” he said. “We’ve increased expectations. We’ve approved standards. Now we’re setting cut scores.”

The cut scores are based on expectations determined in July by a panel of Tennessee educators, plus subsequent analysis of their recommendations by state experts.

You can find the newly approved cut scores for grades 3-8 here.

A new look

When the state provides full score reports to parents, students and teachers this fall, they will look different than in previous years. Scores will fall into four performance levels: mastered, on track, approaching grade level, and below grade level. Under the state’s previous TCAP test, scores were described as advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic.

It’s all part of a redesigned score report unveiled last year by the State Department of Education. Officials say the new design will help students, parents and educators understand better what scores say about their students’ college readiness, and offer tips to help students improve.

Statewide scores for high schoolers were already released in July. District-level results for those students, in their second year of TNReady testing, will be released next week.

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.