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.



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.