change of plans

With A-F grades off the table, Tennessee gets creative about rating its schools under federal law

PHOTO: Getty Images/danchooalex

Tennessee’s plan to start grading its schools this year has taken a big detour.

Days of online testing problems this spring forced officials to toss out a new A-F grading system, under development for more than a year as part of Tennessee’s sweeping plan to usher in a new era of school quality.

Now the state Education Department has come up with a different approach to help parents and communities understand how their schools performed in 2017-18.

The state will rate each school on a scale of 0-4 on six different performance indicators. And in a major concession to local district leaders, schools won’t receive a single overall grade or rating as initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the change complies with a new state law ordering that this year’s TNReady scores “shall not be used to assign a letter grade to a school” — a nod to concerns that the test results may be unreliable. She believes it also complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, the 2015 federal law that requires every state to adopt a rating system that distinguishes each of its schools in a meaningful way.   

McQueen’s approach is drawing mostly praise from education leaders and groups, even as some wonder whether a numeric system will provide the simplicity and clarity of one that grades schools on an A-F scale.

“I give the department credit for going much further than I thought they could or would based on the TNReady law. They were very creative and ambitious,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, which seeks to improve education quality for students of color.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says the numeric system “is not ideal, but it does allow for some accountability and fulfills our requirement” under ESSA.

Federal officials are expected to approve the numeric rating concept and a few other revisions on Tennessee’s updated ESSA plan shared last month with the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen recently told the task force advising her on testing matters that the numeric system will still provide useful information about how schools are doing in areas such as chronic absenteeism; out-of-school suspensions; student readiness for college, career and the military; and a variety of student achievement and growth data. The indicators are meant to give families a fuller picture of school performance than test scores alone.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is greeted by students and staff at Springdale Memphis Magnet Elementary School during a 2015 svisit.

The commissioner also believes the ratings will follow the intent of the emergency TNReady laws, which shield schools from any “adverse action” from this year’s scores.

The ratings will be accessible online by December. For now, state officials are calling the new platform a “dashboard,” and school superintendents got an early peek last week at its design.

The dashboard will be separate from Tennessee’s existing State Report Card, another online tool showing annual data such as demographics, per-pupil funding, and student achievement by school and district. (Editor’s note: State officials have since decided to combine the dashboard and the State Report Card.)

“The current report card has dozens of data points, but we know it may not be a user-friendly tool for every parent to understand how a school is doing” said state spokeswoman Sara Gast.

“The dashboard will condense the number of data points to highlight what we think are some of the key indicators of success, and provide some context about what those scores mean,” she said.

But whether using the 0-4 system will be as easy to understand as A-F grades is a concern.

State lawmakers passed a 2016 law requiring an A-F system for schools beginning this year, and the Education Department adopted that approach as part of Tennessee’s ESSA plan. The idea was to provide parents with an easy-to-use tool to understand how their child’s school is performing. After all, that’s what their children get on their report cards.

For several years, the plan to give each school an overall grade — in addition to grades for each performance indicator — has been a point of contention for local education leaders. The state superintendents organization has fought the idea at every turn and was pushing legislation this year to roll it back before this year’s online TNReady problems made the issue moot.

“We’ve never opposed getting grades for individual areas,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “But many superintendents and school boards felt very passionately that giving schools a single letter grade was not the right approach to give parents the best and most accurate information.”

"I believe (the changes) get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish."Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville

Gresham, who sponsored the A-F bill that became state law, is equally passionate about the importance of providing parents with one summative grade for their school. She’s also concerned that the numeric system won’t pack the same punch as letter grades.

“I believe that both choices get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish,” Gresham told Chalkbeat. “The parents and our communities are our audience, not school administrators.”

Pupo-Walker would rather have overall grades too. But, for now, she’s mostly concerned about whether the dashboard will help parents and communities have robust conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools.

“The onus is on the state to present the information in a way that parents and schools and community members can understand it,” she said, “and then for the information to be actionable.”

In partnership with the state, the coalition is sponsoring five regional meetings beginning June 26 in Nashville to discuss updates to Tennessee’s ESSA plan, including the new rating system. You can find the details here.

Vision

Lawmakers pledge to ‘put some legs’ to new Colorado education plan

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stressed that a new education blueprint respects local control, as state Rep. Bob Ranking, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, and Gov. John Hickenlooper look on.

With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.

The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.

The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.

“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.

Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.

“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”

Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.

The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.

It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.

At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.

In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.

The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.  

“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.

Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.

Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.

“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”

Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.

Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.

“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.

Read the full report here.

growing enrollment

Denver Green School is the district’s pick for a new middle school in growing Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Workmen frame the walls in new affordable housing units in Stapleton in August 2018.

To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.

The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.

Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.

A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.

Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.

High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.

All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.

The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.

Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.

In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.

“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn’t work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”