student growth

Here’s why people are talking about Tennessee, a ‘bright green rectangle’ on a new U.S. map of student growth

As recently as 2009, Tennessee was considered a cellar dweller when it came to student performance on national tests known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Maps depicting student proficiency in math and reading showed Tennessee consistently scoring below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP — considered the gold standard of student assessments — even as neighboring states such as Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi fared better.

But now a new map based on a Stanford researcher’s analysis — showing high-growth districts in shades of green and low-growth districts in purple — has people talking, including Kevin Huffman, the state’s former education commissioner.

The analysis, released this month by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, is the largest of its kind. Author Sean Reardon examined standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015. He used NAEP data to link the scores across states and controlled for differences on state tests by converting school performance to a common scale that measures growth in grade levels. Specifically, he looked at two things: 1) average student performance in third-grade math and English tests; and 2) student test score growth between the third and eighth grades.

Tennessee has never turned heads when it comes to proficiency on national tests but, based on several batches of NAEP scores and now Reardon’s map, it’s raising eyebrows on student growth.

“The first thing that jumps out at you on the map is: ‘Who is that little green rectangle in the middle?’ And that little green rectangle, of course, is us,” said Nakia Towns, Tennessee’s assistant education commissioner, during a presentation last week to a state task force on testing.

Reports on Reardon’s work have garnered Tennessee mentions in publications like The New York Times and this clear shout-out from Mother Jones: “Tennessee is a green oasis in the middle of a desert of purple. Someone should figure out what they’re doing right.”

Reardon says the green “suggests that there’s something behind the higher growth rates for Tennessee students than for students elsewhere in the Southeast. But it doesn’t tell us what caused it or why it happened.”

Tennessee officials are quick to pin the growth on a statewide overhaul of K-12 education grounded in higher academic standards, aligned assessments, and across-the-board accountability for districts, schools, teachers and students. That includes its controversial policy to incorporate growth from standardized test scores into teacher evaluations as part of the state’s 2010 First to the Top plan.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

She added that state and district leaders have collaborated to provide training and coaching supports along the way; educators have stepped up their game in the classroom; and two governors (one Democrat, one Republican) and multiple iterations of legislatures have stayed the course on Tennessee’s overall blueprint for improvement, even as major challenges have emerged.

The Stanford analysis adds credibility to the consolation prize that Tennessee officials have touted since the release of 2013 NAEP scores. Tennessee is the nation’s fastest-improving state in math and reading, they say, even as some naysayers have questioned the superlative.

Since 2011, the state’s national ranking has risen from 46th to 25th in fourth-grade math, 41st to 36th in fourth-grade reading, 45th to 37th in eighth-grade math, and 41st to 30th in eighth-grade reading.

Now, Tennessee is waiting anxiously to see if this year’s NAEP scores, to be released early next year, will support that narrative and advance its goal of ranking in the top half of states by 2019.

PHOTO: TDOE

In the meantime, Reardon’s analysis is helping districts compare their quality of education with their peers, and it’s highlighting school systems that are excelling in academic growth, including those in high-poverty areas. (His research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.)

“Tennessee’s average scores are lower than other states, but their growth rates are a little higher,” Reardon said. “That suggests that kids in Tennessee aren’t getting the same kinds of opportunities early on, but they seem to be having opportunities to learn from third to eighth grade.”

For Towns, who oversees data and research for Tennessee’s education department, the map shows in stark terms that it’s not just something in the water when it comes to her state’s student growth, particularly when comparing border districts with their counterparts just across the line in eight other southeastern states. For the most part, it’s green in Tennessee, purple across the line.

“These are people who go to church together, probably shop at the same WalMart, work together across state lines,” she said. “… There’s not a difference in the kinds of students served, but there’s a big difference in the (education) policy context.”

How effective was your Tennessee district?

Use the search box below to learn how much average student growth your local school district* achieved in five years.

*Shelby County’s listing is pre-merger and broken down as Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools (legacy); Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is listed as Davidson County Schools.

testing accountability

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Does tightening the screws on schools and teachers lead to benefits for students?

For the past couple of decades, school reform efforts have assumed that the answer is yes. Setting ambitious goals, and putting pressure on schools to reach them, would push students ahead. And past research has shown that math scores rose as more states began threatening and sanctioning schools with low test scores in the 2000s.

But a new study shows that continuing to to “raise the bar” during the No Child Left Behind era only had a modest effect at best. That raises questions about whether the small gains were worth the political controversy, and what critics claim were the educational costs, of putting a greater focus on test scores.

“These results suggest that the ratcheting [up] of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” conclude researchers Vivian Wong, Coady Wing, David Martin, and Anandita Krishnamachari.

Their paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on the several years after the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002. The law — which passed with bipartisan support but would eventually draw bipartisan ire — required states to test students annually and set goals for schools. Schools that didn’t meet them faced sanctions.

States each set their own targets using different tests. But the researchers attempted to ask the same questions of each state: How hard was it for each school to hit its goals, and how did that change between 2003 and 2011? Then, they looked at how students did on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Did states see larger gains on the federal low-stakes test after making life tougher on schools?

In many states, it really did become harder and harder for schools to measure up. In 2008, Education Week noted that California’s school failure rate jumped from 34 to 48 percent between 2007 and 2008. In Vermont, the climb was even steeper: from 12 percent of schools failing to 37 percent.

This added pressure, the authors conclude, seemed to lead to national gains in eighth grade math and reading. But the effect was tiny: about half a point in both subjects. (For comparison’s sake, the difference in performance between white and black students in eighth grade math was 32 points on the latest test.)

“Though they find positive effects, like everyone in this literature, they are small [effects],” Tom Dee, a Stanford education professor.

That said, the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged groups: English language learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students who started at the lowest levels of performance.

There was no evidence of higher standards causing any improvements in fourth grade math or reading.

If this shows that raising the bar doesn’t do much, though, past research has shown that just having a bar can make a big difference.

In states that didn’t have accountability systems at all before No Child Left Behind, creating them led to big gains on national low-stakes math tests: 8 points in fourth grade and 5 points in eighth grade, according to a study from Dee.

Together, this research bolsters a theory known as the “accountability plateau” — that creating tougher rules boost performance, but ratcheting up the pressure leads to diminishing returns.

“It seems like when you implement an accountability system there’s an initial bump, but after that continued gains are hard to come by,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied standards and accountability systems.

Dee was more skeptical of this idea. Schools’ goals were getting harder and harder to reach just as criticism of the law was cresting and politicians were considering changes.  

“Districts may have understood it was a nudge and a wink and it didn’t really have teeth,” he said of the law.

No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes a different tack. Instead of giving each state discretion in how many schools are identified as failing and requiring them to ramp up the consequences over time, the law requires each state to identify 5 percent of schools as low-performing.

The latest study suggests that might be a preferable approach if states are able to figure out better ways to help a small group of struggling schools improve. Turnaround efforts — including a prominent federal program backed by a lot of money — have often produced disappointing results.

“It remains unclear how states will implement ESSA,” write the researchers. “But the federal law will likely not succeed if performance requirements are not accompanied by additional support for educators.”

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”