on the rise

Record ACT score puts Tennessee on target to reach national average by 2020

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

The first class in Tennessee to get a free do-over on ACT testing is also the first class to push the state over an average score of 20 on the national college entrance exam, an indication that the state’s investment in its ACT Retake initiative is paying off.

The state’s average moved from 19.9 to 20.1 for its public school students in 2017, according to results announced on Tuesday.

The upward tick was reflected in districts in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, as well as the state’s school turnaround district. (Knox County remained at 21.1, the highest urban score in the state.)

While nominal, the statewide bump of two-tenths of a point puts Tennessee on track to reach the national average of 21 by 2020. It’s also more than a full point over the state’s average score in 2011, where Tennessee mostly languished before launching a targeted strategy in 2015 to up its game and adding the ACT test as a measure of district accountability.

The chart below includes scores so far, as well as targets for the next three years.

Scores past 2017 are goals set by the state department to reach an ACT composite of 21. (Source: TDOE)

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen credits higher statewide standards among the reasons for the improvement, along with ACT prep classes being increasingly incorporated into students’ junior years at the district level.

But it’s the ACT Retake Day that appears to have buoyed the average score past the threshold of 20 for the first time.

The state has paid for the first round of ACT tests statewide since 2009, but spent $760,000 last fall to pay for a do-over for any student who wanted it. About 26,000 students took the state up on the offer, and 40 percent got higher scores. Of those, 1,331 more students earned the 21 necessary to receive the state’s HOPE Scholarship, which provides up to $16,000 toward in-state tuition over four years.

The increase also means that fewer Tennessee students will have to take remedial courses once they get to college.

“These results are incredibly encouraging,” McQueen said in a statement. “More students are unlocking HOPE scholarship funds and creating options for their future, and we are on our way to meet our goal of a statewide average of 21 by 2020.”

In an interview later, she framed the ACT retake initiative as an equity issue, especially since the state is expanding the program this month to allow students to retake the test during school hours and at their own schools. Last year, students had to find transportation to get to a testing site on a Saturday. The state has set aside up to $2.5 million this year to pay for the expansion.

“This has given kids who financially couldn’t retake the test an opportunity to learn from the first test-taking experience, see where they were weak, and then try again, with the state now paying for both tests,” she said. “We’re leveling the playing field.”

Data shows that students who retake college entrance exams tend to do better, particularly students scoring between 16 and 18. “We have seen the most improvement with kids who have been the farthest behind on the ACT,” McQueen said.

Tennessee is one of 18 states that require all students to take the ACT or SAT and uses the test as a barometer for college and career readiness.  

When the ACT released its 2017 scores nationally last month, Tennessee’s average composite was 19.8, but that number reflected a blend of public and private school tests. It also was not necessarily based on the highest scores if students took the test multiple times, even though the highest scores are used for entrance and placement into postsecondary studies. The numbers released on Tuesday reflect the best scores for public school students.

In Memphis, the increase was especially welcome news, only weeks after seeing student growth scores plummet for grades 3-11 under a new state test. The average ACT score for Shelby County Schools rose from 17.5 to 17.8, while the Achievement School District’s average climbed from 15.4 to 15.6.

“ACT scores can open so many doors for students who want to continue their education after graduation,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson of Tennessee’s largest district. “I’m excited more students are taking the test and that we’re seeing growth across the board, particularly in the percentage of students who can earn HOPE scholarship funds.”

Statewide, Germantown Municipal School District had the state’s highest composite for the second year in a row, posting a 25.5 average, up from 24.9. Additionally, White County in Middle Tennessee had the state’s largest one-year gain by raising its average by 1.7 points to 20.3.

Three districts had more than three-quarters of their students scoring at or above a 21 on the ACT: Germantown Municipal School District (83.1 percent), Williamson County Schools (79.8 percent), and Collierville Schools (76 percent).

Find full district- and state-level results on the State Department of Education’s website.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.