Scores in

The report card is in for Tennessee grade-schoolers. It’s not good, but it’s expected.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat

Most of Tennessee’s elementary and middle school students are lagging in English and math, many significantly, according to statewide scores released Wednesday after a two-year gap in testing.

Two-thirds of students taking the state’s new test this spring scored below grade level in English language arts, with a slightly better showing in math.

Of those, 48 percent were “approaching” expectations in English and 36 percent in math, while more than a fifth fell far below expectations in both subjects.

As expected, students did significantly better on the state’s science tests, which were based on standards that have been in place since 2008. Tennessee will switch to more rigorous science standards and a harder exam next school year.

The low scores for English and math for grades 3-8 were expected under the state’s transition to a new test aligned for the first time with more rigorous Common Core standards, which have been in classrooms since 2012. (Tennessee students had performed significantly better on its previous TCAP exams, which did not emphasize critical thinking skills and were based on outdated academic standards.)

The new TNReady scores mirror the poor performance of high schoolers last year in their first year under the new test and tougher benchmarks. The expectation is that grade-schoolers’ scores will begin to rise next year, just as they did for high schoolers for the most part this year in their second year of testing.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the results, while sobering, represent a new baseline for Tennessee. She emphasized the need for presenting a more accurate picture of student performance that is consistent with national testing.

“This is a key moment for our state, as we are now transitioning to the point where we have a true understanding of where students are from elementary through high school, and we can use that information to better support their growth,” she said in a news release.

At the same time, McQueen gave Tennessee an “A” for honesty and transparency about the readiness of its students, in contrast to the “F” it earned in 2007 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for “truth in advertising.” At the time, a wide gap existed between the results of the state’s test and national tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card.

“This is a big deal,” she told reporters during a morning conference call. “We see this as an opportunity and a reset moment for Tennessee. We’re now sharing better, more honest information about where our students are … and can move forward.”

The long-awaited scores will begin to bridge the two-year gap in standardized testing data that began in 2016 when McQueen canceled TNReady for students in grades 3-8 because of a series of technical and logistical snafus under the switch to online testing.

The void has challenged the state’s once-vaunted system of accountability, forcing educators to depend on mostly local assessments to inform them about which students are growing and where they need more support.

McQueen said educators are already digging into the district- and school-level data they received last week under a public embargo. Those nitty-gritty results will be released later this fall using a new score report designed to help parents and teachers better understand where their students stand. The state also plans to provide reports in the weeks ahead to highlight the performance of historically underserved students.

The commissioner expects her department to distribute all scores much sooner next year, allowing educators to make adjustments in courses and planning before the new school year starts. The first year under a new test requires an extended scoring and review process, which included approval of grading thresholds by the State Board of Education.

Correction: Oct. 4, 2017: This story has been updated to correct how test scores are characterized. Because of the way Tennessee’s tests are designed, the scores reflect the proportion of students who met the state’s standards, not the proportion of students who passed the test.

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.