Taking a hit

By getting testing wrong again, Tennessee could undo what it may be getting right

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam attends a Knoxville school assembly in 2016 to celebrate Tennessee outpacing almost all other states in gains on a national science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

After languishing for decades, Tennessee is now considered a pioneer in education improvement circles, while its standing on national tests has risen from the bottom to the middle of the pack over the last decade.

Quick to embrace higher academic standards, the state also explored new strategies to transform struggling schools and adopted a controversial teacher evaluation system grounded in student performance. With its 2010 federal Race to the Top award, it poured millions of dollars into teacher training and coaching.

So it was dumbfounding this spring when a third straight year of problems emerged with TNReady, the standardized test that’s the centerpiece of Tennessee’s policy agenda aimed at becoming a national leader in student achievement.

After a failed rollout of computerized testing in 2016 and scoring issues in 2017, the stakes had never been higher to administer the test successfully.

But on the very first day, thousands of students struggled to advance past the login page — and things went downhill from there. Subsequent testing days were marred by a cyber attack, a fiber optic cable cut by a dump truck in rural Tennessee, and a systems design error that made 1,400 students take the wrong exam.

By the time the state limped across the finish line last week, technical glitches had interrupted more than half of the original testing days, and state lawmakers had passed emergency legislation weakening how the results can be used.

“We’ve failed significantly with TNReady — not once, not twice, but three times,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democratic candidate for governor and member of a House education committee. “It hurts systems that are already beset with credibility problems.”

Now, many stakeholders worry that public outcry over this year’s sloppy testing will unravel years of carefully crafted accountability work in public education.

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.

An early sign came when lawmakers stepped in before testing was even finished to shield students, teachers, schools, and districts from the state’s score-driven accountability systems.

“It happened so quickly and passed with such a large majority that it was jarring to those of us who thought we had some serious momentum with the systems we’ve been working on for years,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, leader of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force.

“It’s created this environment of instability going into a gubernatorial election year, and you begin to wonder what else could be wiped away.”

Politics of education

Over the last 16 years, Tennessee has managed to follow the same general roadmap for improving its schools — first under the administration of Democrat Phil Bredesen and now under Republican Bill Haslam.

But this year’s near meltdown of testing has put Haslam’s administration on the defense in the governor’s final year in office.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and her team are trying to see if the test results are valid and how they can be used. They’re also in daily talks with the U.S. Department of Education over whether the state’s emergency TNReady laws conflict with a federal law that requires student achievement-based accountability.

Haslam will do damage control this week after returning from an overseas economic development trip. He’s expected to beat the drum about the role of a state test as a measuring stick to ensure that children are learning and taxpayers get their money’s worth for the billions spent on schools.

McQueen offered an early glimpse at the messaging late last week. She said this year’s poor delivery of a computerized exam under testing company Questar does not mean that the exam itself is bad.

"We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

“We have an exceptional test,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday, adding that the fix needs to come with how testing is administered. She added that it would be a mistake to change course on the state’s education agenda.

“The three things that we have focused on — high standards, rigorous assessment, and greater accountability — have been the backbone of much of our success in Tennessee,” she said. “We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not.”

Tension with testing

Indeed, national test results have been encouraging. Tennessee’s ACT average finally hit a modest milestone last year, and scores on several national tests are up since 2011. Just months ago, the state was basking in the glow of a massive Stanford University analysis showing Tennessee’s academic gains have outpaced the rest of the South — and much of the nation.

But testing that exceeds federal requirements has taken its toll on school communities, partly because districts have introduced extra exams to make sure students and teachers are on target leading up to TNReady.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“I think we’ve gone dramatically overboard with testing,” said Dan Lawson, a superintendent in Tullahoma. “Everybody felt a very heavy hand on them when it came to this year’s assessment.”

That tension bubbled up last month during legislative hearings amid the online testing interruptions.

“What we have created, I’m afraid, is a culture of testing instead of a culture of teaching,” Rep. Sheila Butt told McQueen.

The Republican from Columbia went on to read a letter from one teacher: “I’m not sure this year if we’re actually wanting academic accountability,” the teacher wrote, “or if we’re merely testing our students’ resilience in the face of obstacles and our teachers’ patience with the new system.”

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs her chamber’s education committee, offered another viewpoint.

“I remember a retired teacher telling me one time that she just wanted to be left alone, close the door, and she would go into her classroom and teach. And I wanted to tell her that that’s how we got to be 46th in overall student achievement,” said the Somerville Republican, “because we did not know what was going on in that classroom.”

“We have got to know,” Gresham concluded. “We have got to be able to evaluate and know what to do going forward.”

Joshua Glazer, a professor and researcher at George Washington University, said it’s understandable that frustrations with TNReady could amplify concerns about testing in general. But he cautioned against any knee-jerk reaction that minimizes assessments.

“We haven’t gotten the testing and accountability thing right yet, for sure,” said Glazer, who has followed Tennessee education policy. “But that doesn’t mean we want to go back to the 1980s when everybody could do whatever they wanted and we saw massive inequality in opportunity as a result.”

For more on how Tennessee got here, check out why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.

missed opportunities

A new report argues that students are suffering through bad teaching and simplistic classwork. Is that true?

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

America’s public school classrooms are full of students who aren’t being challenged.

That’s the claim of a new report by TNTP, the nonprofit advocacy and consulting group, looking at student work and real-life teaching. Students are “planning their futures on the belief that doing well in school creates opportunities — that showing up, doing the work, and meeting their teachers’ expectations will prepare them for what’s next,” it says. “Unfortunately, it’s a myth.”

The study, called The Opportunity Myth, relies on TNTP’s exhaustive effort to get at what students are really doing in class by surveying them in real time, reviewing their work, and observing class instruction — a combination rarely seen in education research. Based on this data, the report argues that low-income students of color in particular are suffering through mediocre instruction and simplistic classwork while their teachers expect little of them.

“Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them,” the report says.

It’s not clear that the study’s methods can support such strong conclusions, though. TNTP’s claims turn on its own subjective way of rating instruction and assignments, and it’s unclear if different approaches would yield different results. And the paper examined just four districts and one charter school network, all anonymous.

That means the study is at once extensive and limited: extensive because it amounts to a massive undertaking to better understand students’ experience, but limited because it only examines a fraction of students in a fraction of classrooms in a handful of districts, none of which were chosen randomly.

Regardless of debates about the methods, the report may draw significant attention. The research of TNTP, previously known as the The New Teacher Project, has a track record of shaping policy, particularly with an influential 2009 report known as The Widget Effect, which focused on perceived flaws of teacher evaluation systems.

The latest study was funded by the Joyce Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Barr Foundation. (Chan Zuckerberg, Joyce, Overdeck, and Walton are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

In contrast with some of the group’s past work, the latest report concludes with few controversial policy recommendations, instead calling for higher expectations and a careful examination of disparities in school resources.

“We believe it’s time to move beyond important but narrow debates — from how to measure teacher performance to charter versus district to the role of standardized testing — and return to the basic guiding principle that brings us to this work: the right of every student to learn what they need to reach their goals,” the report says.

TNTP focuses on three large urban districts, one small rural district, and one charter network with three schools in separate cities. In all but the rural district, a majority of students are black or Latino, as well as low-income.

From there, TNTP got a handful of teachers from certain schools in each district to document their students’ work, collecting and photographing the assignments done by six students during three separate weeks. (Students had to receive parental consent and their names were removed from the work.) TNTP then assigned a rating to each significant piece of work, looking at whether it was on grade level, among other traits.

TNTP also had observers watch and then rate two lessons by each teacher using the group’s rubrics and surveyed teachers to determine their views on whether students could meet their state’s academic standards.

Finally, they surveyed students on their classroom experiences. TNTP used a novel approach for tracking student feelings, asking students whether they were bored or felt excited about learning at various points in a lesson.

In all, TNTP says, it reviewed nearly 1,000 lessons, 20,000 examples of student work, and 30,000 real-time student surveys. And the results, the report said, are grim: only 16 percent of lessons observed had “strong instruction,” and about a quarter of assignments were deemed “grade appropriate.”

This varied from district to district and classroom to classroom. In the most specific example provided in the report, one eighth-grade assignment asked a student to fill in the missing vowels from the word “habitat” after reading a short passage; in contrast, another required students to write a lengthy essay based on a memoir of one of the students to desegregate the all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Student surveys were somewhat more positive: a narrow majority of students, about 55 percent, were generally engaged and interested during class, based on TNTP’s survey.

Students of color and low-income students tended to be in classes with worse instruction, fewer grade-level assignments, and lower expectations for meeting standards. That was correlated with slightly lower rates of test score growth.

All of that, TNTP concludes, amounts to a damning case against most of the classrooms in question and American schools in general. “Students spend most of their time in school without access to four key resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers who hold high expectations,” the report says.

“The ‘achievement gap,’ then, isn’t inevitable. It’s baked into the system, resulting from the decisions adults make.”

But TNTP faces steep challenges in using its data to make such strong claims.

In addition to the districts, schools, teachers, and students not being chosen randomly, the report is not able to pin down whether those resources lead to higher achievement or definitively show why some students seem to have less access to the key resources it cites.

One of the report’s central claims, that increasing access to those resources will boost students’ academic performance, rests on relatively small correlations. In fact, the study showed little if any overall relationship between teachers’ observation scores and their effects on test scores.

“We need to be a little careful about asserting that by increasing one or more of the four resources we will necessarily improve outcomes for kids,” said Jim Wyckoff, a professor at the University of Virginia who sat on an advisory panel for the report, while also noting that he thought the basic theory of the report made sense.

The report’s appendix notes that “classrooms with initially higher performing students tended to get better assignments, better instruction, were more engaged, and had teachers with significantly higher expectations.” But other research has shown that observers tend to give unfairly high ratings to classrooms with more high-achieving students, meaning cause and effect could run the other way here.

TNTP’s measure of teacher expectations relies on teachers’ responses to statements like “My students need something different than what is outlined in the standards,” something that may be conflating high expectations with teachers’ views about the quality of their state standards.

Still, one of the main takeaways from the report — that low-income students of color have less access to good teaching — is generally backed by past research.

High-poverty schools have higher rates of teacher turnover and more inexperienced teachers, on average. Other research in a number of states and cities, including Washington state, North Carolina, New York City, and Los Angeles, has shown that teachers of low-income students are less effective at raising test scores.

Are Children Learning

Chicago is sending more high schoolers to college — but how to get them to graduate?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Janice Jackson, and other city officials convened at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood to announce the latest college enrollment statistics.

Senior Tanariya Thompson, 17, said she and her friends at Michele Clark Magnet High School are constantly asking each other about where they want to go to college. But they’re not just talking, they’re doing their research, too.

“In a lot of our seminar classes I see more kids on the computers applying for colleges instead of just sitting there looking or saying, ‘I ain’t going to college,’” she said. “We’re serious: We want to go to a college so we can become somebody. Next week, I will have my top three.”

Chicago Public Schools released data today showing that more students than ever before are enrolling in college. The mayor and district officials announced the encouraging figures on the West Side, at Michele Clark High School, where students said they’ve seen more energy, excitement and urgency among their peers around the idea of enrolling at college.

The data shows that 1,000 more Chicago Public School graduates from the Class of 2017 enrolled in college compared with 2016, a 4.8 percent increase and the biggest one-year jump in nearly a decade.

Chicago still has a problem with public school graduates staying in and completing college. In 2016, just 18 percent of ninth graders were projected to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation, and four-year college graduation rates have remained pretty stagnant since 2009, according to a fall 2017 report by the UChicago Consortium on School Research. (The report didn’t calculate two-year degree attainment).

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the latest enrollment data “an incredible statement about where Chicago Public School students are,” adding that nearly 90 percent of high school freshmen were on track for graduation.

“Every time they walk around and say, ‘not those kids, not from that school, not that background, not that ZIP code, not that family’ — you come here to Michele Clark and you tell these kids that,” Emanuel said, knocking on the wooden podium before him for emphasis.  “You guys have proved them wrong every step of the way.”

From 2010 to 2017, the college enrollment rate increased from 53.7 percent to 64.6 percent, according to the school district.  Officials credited everything from partnerships with OneGoal and other organizations focused on getting kids to and through college, to a summer text messaging campaign to nudge graduates toward completing action items along the enrollment path, and scholarships to city colleges for students who attain a B average or higher.

They also noted a shift in perspective.

“I think it’s because people have become more serious,” said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson. “I’ve seen it in action with people doing more college trips, people getting out to scholarship fairs, students having a different mindset.”

From 2016 to 2017, college enrollment rates for African-American and Latino students improved by 2.3 percentage points and 7.2 percentage points, respectively, according to the school district. The African-American college enrollment rate increased from 55.4 percent in 2016 to 57.7 in 2017, and the Hispanic college enrollment rate leaped from 59 percent in 2016 to 66.2 percent in 2017, according to district data.

Flanked by Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado, Emanuel said, “it used to be as a system, we were done just getting you to high school graduation, and our responsibility was over,” but now it’s different. The mayor added, “the biggest transformation is the mindset not just of our kids, but of the system.”

“It’s why we’re also making sure we set a goal that by 2019, every child has a plan for what comes next,” Emanuel said, alluding to a new CPS graduation requirement that demands every student “has a meaningful planning conversation with an adult, and graduates with a plan to map out their future.”

The data indicate more students are enrolling at City College of Chicago.

The district said 5.8 percent more students enrolled at city colleges in 2017 compared with the previous year. Of district graduates who attended two-year colleges in 2017, 84.5 percent enrolled at city colleges compared with 78.7 the previous year, according to the district. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado praised the mayor and schools chief’s leadership, saying CPS’ gains were strong steps toward officials’ goals of “a more inclusive economy,” in Chicago.

“We also want to make sure that each of you has in a role in this economy, whether it’s downtown, or in our health-care centers, or at a logistics company, or engineering or manufacturing company or a tech company,” Salgado told the students. “This city will have a place for you.”

Officials said the climbing college enrollment rate mirrored the increasing number of district students earning high school diplomas, and also reflected district students’ overall strong academic progress. Yet the percent of students who enrolled in college in 2015 and were still enrolled the following year, 72.3 percent of graduates, is actually down slightly compared with 2010, when it was 72.8 percent.

That — and the low rates of Chicago Public School students who eventually graduate with a two- or four-year degree — are worrisome figures.

Furthermore, African-American and Latino students and students with disabilities still graduate from high school, enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than the general population. It’s a sobering reminder of inequities in the school system.

Officials acknowledged that work remains to get more students to and through college.

That point that wasn’t lost on Michele Clark senior Naquanis Hughes, 17, who wants to study business in college but is still undecided on where. Hughes said staff, students, and even alumni offer this encouragement about getting through the hard knocks that some students encounter in higher education:

“If you come to a hard place, don’t just fall down, don’t just give up, keep pushing yourself.”