preemptive strike

State seeks to limit opt-out options as TNReady Part II approaches

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

With one part of TNReady down and one still to go, superintendents across Tennessee have received a matter-of-fact directive from the State Department of Education: don’t make it easier for students to refuse to take the state’s new standardized test.

District leaders received a memo last week instructing schools to “address student absences on testing days in the same manner as they would address a student’s failure to participate in any other mandatory activity at school (e.g. final exams) by applying the district’s or school’s attendance policies.”

“Results from TCAP tests give both teachers and parents a unique feedback loop and big-picture perspective to better understand how students are progressing and how they can support their academic development,” the memo reads. “State and federal law also requires student participation in state assessments. In fact, these statutes specifically reference the expectation that all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments.”

The communication reflects growing concern from state and local officials that Tennessee will see a spike in students choosing to opt out of the second part of TNReady, scheduled to be administered between April 25 and May 11 in grades 3-11. The test is a critical measure of performance — not just for students but for teachers, schools, districts and the state.

While officials can’t provide statewide numbers at this point, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of Tennessee students opting out is mounting, a year after large numbers of students refused tests in states including New York, Washington and Colorado. In Chattanooga, for instance, more than 200 students at Normal Park Magnet Elementary School refused last month to take TNReady Part I.

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them. In contrast, parents in New York can notify their principal in writing that they intend to refuse tests in behalf of their child.

During TNReady Part I, some schools permitted students who were opting out to sit in class and read during the testing. The memo says that schools should not offer alternative activities for students not partIcipating in mandatory testing.

The state’s rocky rollout of this year’s new test, which has been beset by technical problems and delays, likely has added to the momentum of the nascent movement. And because test scores will be released late this year due to the transition to TNReady, teachers and parents consider them less helpful than in years past, since students already will have moved on to the next grade.

In New York, opt-out movements saw spikes in the second year after transitioning to new tests, with one in five students refusing state tests amid widespread criticism of the state’s testing program. But since Tennessee’s new test was broken in two parts, some parents who saw frustrations stemming from Part I have indicated they may ask that their child refuse the second part.

While conversations about opting out have expanded, it’s unclear whether the talk will translate into action.

In Murfreesboro, city school board member Jared Barrett recently commented that perhaps his whole district should opt out. He later said his remark was an expression of frustration over TNReady’s technical problems, not a call to action. Once he looked into the potential cost to his district of a wholesale refusal to administer the test — including loss of state and federal funds — he said that the avenue wasn’t worth pursuing.

Dan Lawson, superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, said he hasn’t been contacted directly by parents about opting out, but has increasingly seen those conversations on social media.

“I think social media has fed (opt-out) a bit,” he said last week. “Many of us believe that that set of numbers will grow. How large? I don’t know.”

You can see the memo here:

 

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Digging in

We’re reading all 279 pages of what investigators found out about Memphis schools. Join us!

Shelby County Schools this week released two reports detailing the results of investigations stemming from allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School.

The big story? Grade changes are pervasive in many Memphis high schools.

That doesn’t mean that all grade changes reflect illicit behavior, but there’s a lot more to learn. Nearly 300 pages are now posted on the district’s website.

As you read the reports, we want to know what you’re thinking. Pick any section that interests you and leave a comment sharing your thoughts and reactions. And let us know what page and report you’re looking at.

Here’s an example we found on page 12 of Butler Snow’s report about the district’s internal review of Trezevant before bringing in several outside investigators last June:

On October 5, 2016, (Bill) White announced his team’s initial findings with respect to the scope and impact of the transcript adjustments on students that were currently enrolled in the SCS, stating:
We have identified 131 students currently enrolled in the district whose
transcripts were altered by a staff member of Trezevant . . . All of these students
were previously enrolled at Trezevant at some point during their time in high
school. 92 of these students are still enrolled at Trezevant, 44 of whom are
seniors. The remaining 39 (of the 131) are now enrolled in 22 different high
schools. Of these 39 students, 15 are seniors. (Other schools will be contacted as
needed.)

The 258-page report by Butler Snow & Dixon Hughes Goodman covers:

  • General allegations in former principal Ronnie Mackin’s June 1 resignation letter, such as improper conduct, a cover-up of transcript changes and “maltreatment”;
  • Review of instances of transcript changes at all Shelby County Schools high schools

The report by Ogletree Deakins is 21 pages long and covers:

  • Allegations of improper sexual advances and racial discrimination

As always, you can follow Chalkbeat’s ongoing coverage of this and other education stories via our homepage, Facebook and Twitter — and be sure to sign up in the red box here for our daily Rise & Shine newsletter. It’s a free and efficient way to stay in the know about the most important K-12 education news in Tennessee.