Rounding a corner

After two rocky weeks, Tennessee testing settles down for the homestretch

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Students and teachers tackling state exams this week relished a stretch of normalcy, enjoying several days in a row without significant slowdowns or shutdowns in computerized testing.

With a week of TNReady testing to go and about 70 percent of exams complete, testing company Questar permanently disabled a function believed to have interrupted Tennessee’s assessment on Monday, the latest in a string of technical problems that have plagued schools this spring.

The newest culprit — a tool that allowed text to be turned into speech for students needing audible assistance — was contributing to problems logging in and submitting tests, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

And regardless of how many students were using the tool in individual schools, the issue affected districts statewide, she added.

“We believe that we would not be able to turn this feature back on without significantly risking further disruption and widespread slowdowns as students log on and submit their exams,” Gast wrote superintendents Tuesday evening in an email update.

As a result, special education students who previously used the text-to-speech feature must have the TNReady text read aloud to them by a teacher or proctor — similar to how their younger counterparts take the test with pencil and paper.

About 1 percent of Tennessee students receive read-aloud instructions as part of their special education plans, which means that schools have had to rearrange their schedules and staffing to accommodate the sudden change.

Tennessee reintroduced statewide computerized testing this school year after its failed rollout in 2016. However, this time around, the state only required online testing for high school students. Some districts opted to go digital for students in middle grades as well.

Since testing began on April 16, high schoolers have experienced significant disruptions online on at least half of the testing days, with causes ranging from a reported cyber attack to the severing of a main fiber optic cable by a dump truck in East Tennessee.

Testing went better this Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Gast, adding that “our helpline has been very quiet,” despite a high volume of testing.

Online testing officially extends through May 9, but many districts already have submitted their last tests to Questar. Paper-and-pencil testing for elementary-age students ends on Friday, and those materials will be picked up and transported to Questar for scoring.

The scores won’t count for much, though, due to emergency legislation approved last month in response to concerns about the validity and reliability of the results. Criticizing the frequent interruptions, the legislature directed that “no adverse action may be taken” against any student, teacher, school, or district based on scores this school year.

The state Department of Education has been working ever since to develop guidelines on how TNReady will play into Tennessee’s accountability systems this year.

“We are striving to be as thoughtful, collaborative, and efficient as possible as we work on this,” Gast said. “The new law impacts many areas and our goal is to implement it as written while honoring the spirit in which it was passed.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.