In talks

Does Tennessee’s emergency response to testing problems conflict with federal ed law? Stay tuned.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the front podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 25, the last day of the 2018 legislative session, as the chamber's education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year's TNReady scores.

The trouble with developing an emergency exit plan in the midst of a fire is that it’s hard to think through all the details.

That’s how some are describing the recent flurry of lawmaking in Tennessee, where lawmakers passed two pieces of emergency legislation last month while the sky seemed to be falling down around Tennessee’s computerized test.

The 11th-hour bills were a response to public outcry over TNReady, the state’s problem-plagued standardized assessment, including concerns that daily interruptions to the online version had made the results unreliable. The intent of the legislation was clear: “No adverse action may be taken” against any student, teacher, school, or district based on this year’s results.

Now, staff members with the state Department of Education are in daily talks with federal education officials over whether the legislation has put Tennessee out of compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law that is also tied to funding.

They expect to have an answer by next week.

The 2015 law requires states to test students annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and Tennessee will accomplish that this year, albeit in a rather messy fashion. But ESSA also requires states to create systems that hold schools accountable for performance based on several measures that include student achievement. That’s the sticky part for Tennessee, where TNReady scores provide that measure.

Thus, even as the state legislation has helped school communities feel a little better about TNReady woes, it has raised a flurry of new questions about Tennessee’s plan under ESSA.

If the scores don’t count, do chronically underperforming charter schools now get a pass from being closed this year? Can schools that continue to hover in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent avoid state interventions? And how will Tennessee proceed with its plan to give schools A-F grades this fall — as also ordered by state lawmakers — if it can’t use standardized test scores to help grade them?

“We’re concerned that there’s now going to be zero accountability tied to these scores,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and served on the state’s ESSA working group. “Accountability prompts action. And if you don’t have an assessment that gives you a sense of achievement and growth, you don’t know who your low-performing schools are in order to take action, and you don’t know where your bright spots are that we can celebrate and learn from.”

Added Charles Barone, national policy director for Democrats for Education Reform:

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could skip our annual reviews at work and avoid the discomfort of getting the feedback necessary to get better at what we’re paid to do? That’s what Governor (Bill) Haslam and the Tennessee legislature have just done for those charged with the responsibility of providing high-quality educational opportunities for every child.”

"We’re concerned that there’s now going to be zero accountability tied to these scores."Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition

As Tennessee and federal officials iron out the wrinkles created by the bills — one of which has been signed into law and the other that’s expected to be — state officials are working to avoid asking for a waiver to federal education law. Waivers were a hallmark of the Obama administration and the previous version of ESSA, No Child Left Behind, but would be new territory under President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

The state might be able to get away with updating Tennessee’s plan under ESSA, which would only require that the governor sign off on it.

“Should a State wish to amend its plan, the Department will consider all amendments based on their compliance with the law,” said Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, in a statement. “The Department will continue to work with Tennessee to ensure that its approved plan is implemented with fidelity and in accordance with the law.”

Sara Gast, Hill’s counterpart in Nashville, said Tennessee’s Department of Education is “striving to be as thoughtful, collaborative, and efficient as possible as we work on this.” She added that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to “honor the spirit” of the legislation while also keeping the state in compliance with federal law.

“Our ESSA plan exceeded the minimum requirements,” Gast said, “and we still fully expect to meet our obligations under ESSA.”

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.”