Finally

After a two-year gap, Tennessee is about to release test scores for grade-schoolers. Here’s what to expect.

Teaching and learning haven’t stopped during Tennessee’s two-year gap in standardized testing, but the scores that help gauge how students, teachers and schools are doing have definitely been interrupted.

That void will start to be filled on Wednesday morning when the State Department of Education releases this year’s statewide TNReady scores for grades 3-8. (District- and school-level scores will come later this fall.)

Circumstances have changed significantly since 2015 when the last state scores were available for Tennessee’s elementary and middle school students. This spring marked the first time that those grades took a harder test in alignment with Common Core academic standards.

As such, this year’s scores are expected to drop significantly from 2015, just as they did for high schoolers in 2016 during their first year of testing in the TNReady era.

Preliminary data backs that up. In August, Tennessee’s State Board of Education set thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level, offering an early glimpse of this year’s results for grades 3-8. Only about a third of those students scored on or above grade level in English language arts, while a slightly higher percentage passed in math.

The “new baseline scores,” as state officials are calling them, are part of the “reset” that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been talking about since becoming the state’s education chief in 2015. Before a series of snafus prompted McQueen to fire the state’s testmaker and cancel 2016 tests for its youngest students, she warned that scores would drop initially under TNReady, then begin to climb, as they did for high schoolers this year in their second year of testing.

But the initial tumble in scores also will be accompanied by a sigh of relief from education leaders across Tennessee. Once again, they’ll finally have the testing data that serves as the lynchpin of the state’s system of education accountability. Without that data, they’ve been challenged to track progress, especially of historically underserved groups of students.

The blip has prompted temporary changes in the way the state rates its teachers and schools. This year, for instance, student growth scores that were released last month will count for only 10 percent of teacher evaluations, compared to up to 50 percent in 2015.

The Achievement School District also pushed pause on its takeover of low-performing schools during the testing transition — a retreat that has been extended as the state has made the turnaround district a tool of last resort under its new education plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.