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:

 

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.