Are Children Learning

Bye-bye bubble sheets: New Hampshire’s innovative approach to testing appeals to Indiana, other states

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in an English-learner class at Southport High School work on an assignment during the last period of the day.

As Indiana awaits recommendations from a committee that’s trying to figure out what student exams will look like after 2017, one idea out of New Hampshire is capturing the attention of educators.

New Hampshire’s “performance tasks” are considered some of the most innovative standardized tests in the country, but they don’t look much like standardized tests at all.

The new pilot program in the Granite State — called Performance Assessment of Competency Education or PACE — moves away from the computerized testing and multiple-choice bubble sheets that have been the backbone of annual state exams for decades.

In their place, the PACE program asks kids in the eight pilot districts to do “performance tasks” throughout the school year to show deep understanding of the subjects they’re studying.

For example, while a traditional geometry exam might ask students to solve math problems and even require them to show how they calculated their answer, New Hampshire now asks them to complete complex problems applied to real-word situations that require a range of skills and knowledge they’ve been learning in class.

“We asked the kids to be a town planner, and as part of that planning board they are asked to design two towers that use solids,” said Lee Sheedy, a New Hampshire high school geometry teacher who’s been working on the new test questions since the pilot began in 2014. “One would be a simple solid and the other had to be a compound solid. They then write a proposal to the town recommending one of the towers.”

To complete the task, students must draw models, do calculations, analyze results and write a proposal all in one exercise, Sheedy said.

Students in the pilot districts take the Smarter Balanced exam — a more traditional standardized test that is used in more than a dozen states — in third-grade English, fourth-grade math and eighth-grade English and math. All high-school juniors take the SAT.

In the rest of the grades, students must complete performance tasks in math, English and science throughout the year according to where those tasks fall in the curriculum. Some of the tasks are “local,” which help districts measure student progress at certain points in the academic year, but others are “common” which can be compared across districts.

Once the tasks are completed, the classroom teachers grade them. “Common” tasks are scored and then validated by the state against predetermined sample answers.

For both common and local questions, teachers are trained for about two weeks over the course of the year by their peers to use the scoring guides to grade student answers. Then, for the common questions, teachers compare their scoring processes to those of teachers’ from other schools and districts to ensure they are accurate. Final scores are reported to the state for accountability purposes.

For the water tower problem, there were four possible scores a student could receive and three main areas where they needed to show work: models and scale drawings, calculations and mathematical strategy and communication, analysis and recommendation.

Kathleen Cotton, a curriculum and instruction coach in Sheedy’s district in Rochester, New Hampshire, said that although there is extra work involved on the front end, the performance tasks give teachers information they can use immediately.

“You look at some of this high-stakes testing that we have, and it really is not engaging at the time because the students don’t really have any buy-in except of that one score at the end,” Cotton said.

Throughout the pilot, Sheedy said his students have been more engaged than they were taking traditional exams. He’s never seen kids so focused as when they are working on the new types of tests.

“When you give students a real world problem, you allow them to be creative, you allow them to think critically,” Sheedy said. “They get incredibly motivated. If you walked into my room during PACE you could hear a pin drop.”

He’s also been impressed by how much by how much developing the tasks has helped him as a teacher.

“When you let teachers … get out of their classrooms and you look at student work and you talk about it, teachers become better teachers,” Sheedy said. “Their ability to instruct and assess, it increases exponentially. I have grown more as a teacher since I’ve been doing PACE than any other thing I’ve been doing in the classroom over the last 12 years.”

The teacher-led work in designing and learning to grade the tasks was significant. Teams of teachers worked on the questions themselves and the scoring guides to grade them.

The New Hampshire experiment is making ripples across the country as more and more states are looking for alternatives to traditional once-a-year testing methods.

States looking for new options are encouraged by changes to federal testing regulations that are expected next year when the No Child Left Behind Act is replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law still requires every state to create an accountability system that measures annual student performance, but this law allows more flexibility. As many as seven states could be chosen to try new, innovative exams.

The work to completely change a testing system isn’t easy, and for larger states with more diverse student populations, varied funding across districts and stricter accountability systems, like Indiana, it’s not clear if this model would see the the same kind of success that it’s seen in New Hampshire.

It’s also not clear if Indiana education officials are going to even pursue an innovation pilot under ESSA, although state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning have expressed interest in New Hampshire’s model.

Many Indiana educators say they’re frustrated with years of ISTEP exams that have seen major delays, results that don’t do much to guide instruction and computer testing glitches. Some say they’re ready to try something new, and state officials agree.

For now, said Danielle Shockey, Indiana’s deputy state superintendent, the state will focus on its work with the new testing committee before it gets involved in a new federal initiative.

“There’s a lot left to be learned about that innovation pilot,” Shockey said.

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.