Clarion call

Memphis teachers union calls on Tennessee to invalidate TNReady over scoring errors

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Tikeila Rucker, president of United Education Association of Shelby County, calls on the state to invalidate TNReady test results because of scoring errors for some high school students.

The incorrect scoring of state tests for more than a thousand Memphis students was the last straw for one of the city’s two major teacher unions.

The United Education Association of Shelby County called on Tennessee Monday to invalidate test scores statewide in light of news that its testing vendor incorrectly scored nearly 10,000 tests due to a programming error.

During a morning news conference, the union also called for a moratorium until 2021 on using the TNReady test in its accountability system. In addition, union leaders urged state lawmakers to hold public hearings on the state’s testing challenges.

From the State Capitol, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell called Monday for a hearing in Nashville on the matter.

“We have made great strides over the last several years in education, and we must be diligent in ensuring we continue these gains,” Harwell said in a statement. “We know that accountability has been a large part of this improvement. However, the news that nearly 10,000 TNReady tests were scored incorrectly has resulted in educators, parents, and legislators seeking answers.”

Test scores and how they measure student growth are critical components of Tennessee’s new accountability system under the new federal education law. In many districts, teacher pay and evaluations also hinge on test scores.

“This is the third year in a row that we’ve experienced issues regarding TNReady, which leads us to have zero confidence in TNReady, Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education,” said Shelby County UEA President Tikeila Rucker on behalf of the union’s 2,000 members.

State officials report that the errors make up less than 1 percent of high school end-of-course tests statewide, and that score results for grades 3-8 are correct and final. Less than 1,700 of Tennessee’s 1.9 million TNReady exams will receive a different performance level score as a result of the corrected scores, according to spokeswoman Sara Gast of the Department of Education.

“For the most part, students’ scores do not meaningfully change,” Gast said Monday.

But Rucker worried that the problem may be more widespread.

“It’s as if you had a piece of pie, and I find a piece of glass in it,” she said. “But I cut somebody else a piece of that same pie and assure you ‘You don’t have glass in yours.’ Are you going to trust me and eat that piece of pie knowing that there’s a piece of glass in mine?”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and school board chair Shante Avant also spoke at the press conference.

“We stand in solidarity with our teachers. We know the (state) Department of Education is working very hard,” Hopson told reporters. “But given the high-stakes nature of the test, we just want to be accurate. And when they’re not accurate, it just casts a cloud of doubt over the whole process.”

Hopson stopped short of calling for test scores to be invalidated. “I wouldn’t necessarily jump to that conclusion,” he said, “but I do agree with our teaching colleagues that the results need to be accurate and timely.”

Tennessee has been beset by testing challenges since the 2016 launch of TNReady, including the test’s cancellation for grades 3-8 due to an online snafu in its first year. The second year of testing appeared to go better, and the state has been releasing scores gradually over the summer and fall. The scoring problem affecting 33 districts was revealed late last week in an email from Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns to district superintendents and directors statewide.

Gast said all 33 districts have received their corrected scores. In East Tennessee, for instance, Maryville City Schools saw a 7 percent increase in the number of students who scored “on track” or “mastered” once they received corrected scores, according to The Daily Times.

Tennessee signed its $30 million contract with Questar in July 2016 after firing Measurement Inc. due to the botched rollout of TNReady.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from a state spokeswoman.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:

 

School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.