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.

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.