Shelby County Schools

With hit and miss results, administrators ask for another year with test predictors

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Colonial Middle School eighth graders practice taking the writing assessment online.

Shelby County Schools administrators want to continue using for another year a testing program that attempts to determine how well students will perform on state tests.

That’s despite principals’ and teachers’ concerns that the program, Discovery Education, can sometimes give “way off” results that can grossly alter the year’s curriculum. Tennessee legislators could also scrap TCAP, the state test Discovery Education was designed to predict, by the end of this year.

Several of the district’s schools face the threat of being taken over by the state after producing dismally-low test scores for several years in a row. Test predictors have been heavily used in recent years to avoid that fate.

After administrators advocated for a one year contract extension of Discovery Education during a board meeting Tuesday, board members were presented with the option of finding another vendor or not using any testing system. The majority of the board members indicated they will likely vote to extend the contract at its next meeting in August.

Discovery Education is given to students throughout the district three times a year in written or digital form.  Teachers and principals use the results to design curriculum and figure out which students need extra attention throughout the year. If the vast majority of a third grade teacher’s students scored high on the reading portion of Discovery Education but low in the math portion, the teacher will spend the next quarter emphasizing math, for example.

Administrators say Discovery Education is usually 72 to 84 percent accurate in predicting how well a student will do on the TCAP.

“We feel that’s strong,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer. “It accurately can inform teachers of student mastery and areas that need to be retaught.”

But at least one principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his job, said the program was “way off” in predicting how well his school would do during a previous school year. It left the teachers with disappointing results and the risk of their evaluations being damaged, he said.

The district, like most in Tennessee, received a surprising blow earlier this spring when the Tennessee General Assembly voted to delay the PARCC assessment for a year and put out another request for proposal. Several legislators felt the state was moving too fast with the new test that would hold high stakes for teachers.

While testing students is a necessity for the district, board member Teresa Jones raised concern Tuesday that using a test that isn’t Common Core or PARCC (Partnership for  Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) -aligned could be a “waste of time” for the district’s students, teachers and principals.

The district participated in several test-runs of the online assessment, bought new computers and expanded its wi-fi network in preparation for PARCC.

Knowing PARCC will not be used in 2014-15, Hopson said Tuesday, does not negate the necessity for the district to have a test that gauges where students are academically.

Since the students will be taking the TCAP in the spring of 2015 and Discovery Education is used to predict performance on that test, Hopson argued it was the district’s best course of action this fall.

The last contract cost the district more than $800,000.

While the future of Discovery Education has yet to be determined, the Shelby County Schools board voted unanimously to expand the use of Istation, another testing tool that predicts literacy test scores, to all of its schools this fall. That program costs around $1 million.  Teachers can use the program, which features lesson plans and interactive quizzes, throughout the year.

The program was used last year in some schools that face especially challenging circumstances like Sharpe Elementary where 70 percent of its students were reading below grade.

“I feel that Istation has made us more aware of where our students were reading, and it holds the entire school more accountable,” said Stephanie Gatewood, who is the school’s family services specialist. “The most powerful element is the real time data, and the ability to drill down into the students’ level of literacy. Mandating that all schools use Istation would be a very wise move for the district: it’s a powerful tool.”

While recognizing that IStation works, Hopson also said he’s aware that people say students are tested too much, but the district has to have a way to assess student performance.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at [email protected] and (901) 730-4013.

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Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.