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.

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.