digital drop

The national test of students’ progress has gone digital. A state leader is raising questions about what that means.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

The release of “the nation’s report card” on April 10 will be a big deal. The scores put a spotlight on the academic performance of all 50 states and many big school districts, and inevitably lead to jockeying about what the numbers mean for education policy.

That’s why it’s also a big deal when a state leader raises questions about the National Assessment of Educational Progress — which Louisiana Superintendent John White is doing now in the lead-up to the scores’ release.

In a March 23 letter to the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP tests, White said he was concerned that this year’s switch from paper-and-pencil exams to computer-based exams might unfairly penalize some states. He called on NCES, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, to release more information about the issue.

“I would like to be assured,” White wrote, that “the results and trends reported at the state level reflect an evaluation of reading and math skill rather than an evaluation of technology skill.”

Peggy Carr, the acting head of NCES, told Chalkbeat that she does intend to release the information White is requesting, and that the testing group has made extensive efforts to ensure that comparisons are valid during the transition to computer-based testing.

“We did the best of the best in terms of how we executed it,” Carr said of the organization’s study of the print and digital test results. “That is what I will share with the states.”

Still, White’s letter is likely to attract attention because he is among the best-known state schools chiefs — and because his request for more information was also backed by a letter from the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, which represents all state education leaders.

The digital-test dip

Students tend do tend to do worse on exams taken on a computer or a tablet than on one taken with pencil and paper. States have been finding this out on their own yearly tests, including the PARCC.

For the first time in 2017, most students took the NAEP tests digitally. A small number of students continued to take the test on paper, allowing officials to adjust for differences caused by the test-taking mode. The NAEP results are even being released later this time around because that analysis took extra time.

Carr won’t talk about this year’s results yet, and wouldn’t say whether NCES found that taking the test on a tablet affected students’ scores. But she noted that when tablets first started being used, in a 2015 pilot phase, NCES did see such a phenomenon, and that it’s common in educational testing.

“Everyone finds a mode effect when they go from paper and pencil to [digital],” said Carr, using the technical phrase for how different test-taking methods affect student performance.

White’s issue is with how NCES addresses the score dip that comes with the digital tests.

In his letter, White suggests that NCES is making the same adjustment for every student. That might not make sense, he argues. Louisiana and Massachusetts students, for example, have different levels of exposure to technology. Different states and groups of students might need different adjustments.

“No Louisiana student in 4th grade or 8th grade had ever been required to take a state assessment via a computer or tablet as of the 2017 NAEP administration,” White wrote. “This fact, coupled with a variety of social indicators that may correspond with low levels of technology access or skill, may mean that computer usage or skill among Louisiana students, or students in any state, is not equivalent to computer skills in the national population.”

It won’t be clear if White’s concerns have merit until NCES releases its state-by-state analysis.

Andrew Ho, a professor at Harvard and member of the NAEP governing board, said that such questions could be legitimate. For a state truly to be unfairly penalized, though, their students would have to respond differently than other students nationally with similar demographics.

The Louisiana angle

It’s worth noting that there are political incentives for leaders to raise questions about results that don’t make their state look good.

The 2017 NAEP results have been shared with state testing officials, who are instructed not to discuss the results publicly until their wider release. White — who has highlighted gains his state had made on NAEP between 2009 and 2015 — said he couldn’t comment on Louisiana’s performance in the latest round of tests.

Even though researchers warn that it is inappropriate to judge specific policies by raw NAEP results, if White’s letter is a signal that Louisiana’s scores have fallen, that could deal a blow to his controversial tenure, where he’s pushed for vouchers and charter schools, the Common Core, letter grades for schools, and an overhaul of curriculum.  

White said his state’s results are not what’s driving his concerns.

“I doubt that any mode effect would have radically vaulted Louisiana to the top or dropped Louisiana further below,” he said. “The issue is from a national perspective.”

Carr said she plans to respond to White’s letter in writing.



To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: