More backlash

Citing ‘multiple years of failure,’ Knoxville school leaders vote ‘no confidence’ in state

PHOTO: TN.gov
Haslam with his education chief, Candice McQueen

Tennessee’s third-largest district voted Wednesday night to draft a letter of “no confidence” to the Tennessee Department of Education, Gov. Bill Haslam, and Knoxville-area lawmakers.

The letter from Knox County Schools board is the latest in a backlash against the state over how the department evaluates teachers and schools.

Problems with pre-K and kindergarten teacher portfolio evaluations became the issue that pushed board Chairwoman Patti Bounds to say the department “still takes no ownership” of its mistakes. Portfolios are used to evaluate educators who teach pre-K, kindergarten, and subjects not included in TNReady standardized testing. Portfolios can include videos showing student progress during the year.

Earlier this week, the superintendents of the state’s two largest districts, Memphis and Nashville, wrote to Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to pause state testing until after the election because “educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels.”

Tennessee has taken pride in the progress of its students on national tests and has toughened up its requirements for student learning and evaluating teachers. But the foundation for its analysis, the state’s new online test, TNReady, has been fraught with technical setbacks since it was introduced in 2016.

State lawmakers were so concerned about the problems with TNReady that they passed legislation ensuring the scores would not be used to negatively impact teachers, students, or schools. School-level scores could be released as early as late next week.

Some Knoxville board members wanted to echo the sentiment of Memphis and Nashville superintendents about TNReady, but settled on highlighting the more timely portfolio issue, Bounds said.

“The portfolio system is a mess,” she told Chalkbeat. “The Department of Education has had multiple years of failure.”

The board will likely meet Tuesday in a special meeting to approve a letter, she said.

First-year problems for the teacher portfolios have resulted in error messages or questionable low scores for teachers. It is unclear how many teachers across the state are affected, but a spokeswoman for the department said about 7 percent got the lowest overall score. The state department attributed the problems to user error while one of the state’s teacher organizations blamed a system glitch.

“Every time something fails, the Department of Education blames it on the teachers. And some of their reasons are just not valid,” Bounds told Chalkbeat.

But the issue may reach beyond teachers who got an overall low score. One teacher got the second highest possible score on her evaluation, but she could not explain a low score in one section. She presented her issues with the portfolio system to the Knoxville school board Wednesday night, Bounds said.

“The state likes to deal in percentages, but I like to deal in people,” she said. “If there’s one person whose portfolio was done incorrectly, it matters.”

Sara Gast, a state department spokeswoman, said teachers who received low scores because of mistakes made when the portfolios were submitted can ask to have them reviewed again, and receive comments on their work.

McQueen has also invited several superintendents, including Bob Thomas of Knoxville, to give feedback on upcoming changes to the portfolio process.

She also provided an email from a Knox County teacher who reviewed portfolios praising the state for its process and chiding teachers who did not take full advantage of the training.

“I have personally reviewed four different teachers’ collections that they received a ‘1’ on, and within minutes was able to tell the teachers why the collection was scored that way,” said Laurie Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Cedar Bluff Elementary School.

“In each case, it was a mistake that the teacher did not catch because they did not take the time to understand what was being asked on the scoring rubric or they did not check their work before submitting the collection.”

Update, Aug. 9, 2018: This story has been updated to include comments from the Tennessee Department of Education.

Measure of Success

State ratings identify 163 Colorado schools in need of improvement

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

More than 160 Colorado schools received one of the state’s two lowest ratings, making them eligible for additional assistance but also vulnerable to intervention if they don’t improve student performance.

The watch list comprises 9 percent of Colorado’s 1,800 schools and educate roughly 74,000 students, or 8.5 percent or the state’s almost 900,000 students. That means the vast majority of students in the state attend a school with one of the two higher rankings on the four-point scale.

The State Board of Education finalized the ratings Wednesday. The state gives separate district-wide ratings, which were finalized last month.

“The state’s accountability system is built on the premise that all students should receive a high quality education and graduate ready for college or careers,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Our goal is to give all students a chance to excel. These designations allow us to identify struggling schools that may need more support to help students achieve their highest aspirations. And they also highlight successful schools so that other schools can learn from them.”

All public schools receive a state rating, known as the School Performance Framework report, each year. It’s based largely on student scores on the state’s English and math tests. Student growth, or how much students learn year-to-year compared to peers with similar results on state tests, carries most weight. High school graduation and dropout rates are also factored in.

Colorado Department of Education

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest).

Schools and districts that have one of the lower two ratings are placed on a watch list and have five years to improve before facing state intervention. Schools on the list are eligible for grants for leadership training and help from outside consultants, but if change doesn’t come fast enough, the state could hand over control to an external manager, require conversion to a charter, or close schools.

Earlier this fall, the State Board of Education ordered the Adams 14 school district, based in Commerce City, and two schools in Pueblo in southern Colorado to turn over control to external managers after earlier intervention efforts did not produce enough improvement.

Colorado is still figuring out what effective intervention looks like and if outsiders can make a difference for students that existing leadership has not been able to achieve.

Most Colorado schools maintained the same rating they had in 2017, with 15 percent moving down at least one level and 14 percent moving up at least one level. Eighteen schools improved enough to get off the state watch list, which is often known as the “accountability clock,” some after initial state intervention last year.

Six schools are entering their eighth year on the watch list: Aurora Central High School, Adams City High School, Aguilar Junior-Senior High School in the tiny Aguilar district in southern Colorado, Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School in Douglas County, Heroes Middle School, and Risley International Academy of Innovation, the last two both in Pueblo.

Two are entering year six: Central Elementary School in the Adams 14 district and Minnequa Elementary School in Pueblo.

Another four are entering year five, now the last year to improve before state intervention: Manual High School and Montbello Career and Technical High School in Denver, Mesa Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado, and EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School in Douglas County.

In the past, some schools received more time to improve because the “clock” was paused for several years as the state changed assessments. But now there are no more extensions beyond year five.

Of the state’s 42 online schools, a little more than half received one of the top two ratings, and 31 percent did not report enough data for the state to grant a rating. Colorado has more stringent regulations of online schools than many states, but there is an ongoing debate about how well these schools serve students.

About 84 percent of the state’s 247 charter schools received one of the top two ratings, compared to 89 percent of all Colorado schools. Twenty-six charter schools, or 10.5 percent, received one of the lowest two ratings.

Look up your school here:

Literacy tutors needed

Detroit enlists volunteer tutors before third-grade reading law takes effect

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Detroit’s school district is asking the community for help getting students reading at grade level. The superintendent is hoping volunteer literacy tutors will prevent a critical mass of third-graders from being held back under the state’s tough new reading law.

“We need your help,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, making an appeal for volunteers during a school board meeting Tuesday night. “Our teachers and our principals and our schools alone will not be able to ensure that every student is at third-grade level without your help.”

Which is why the district is working with two community advocacy groups, Keep the Vote/No Takeover and the National Action Network, to launch the Let’s Read program, geared to K-3 students. The program is slated to begin in February — less than a year before the reading law takes effect. Once it does, during the 2019-2020 school year, Michigan third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level will be held back.

In the Detroit district, where proficiency levels on state exams are extremely low, the consequences could be dire. During a community forum last week, Vitti said that the law could hold back as many as 90% of Detroit third-graders, though Michigan’s education department has yet to define what it means for a student to be reading at grade level. At the forum, though, he noted exemptions from the law for such as students with special education needs and those who speak little to no English.

The Let’s Read volunteers will be assigned to individual students based on need. They will read with the children and help them with book selections.

Helen Moore, a longtime community activist who represents the two community organizations behind the volunteer effort, urged people to sign up during the public comment period of the meeting.

“I know our students will succeed, because they’re brilliant,” Moore said. But they and their parents need help, she said.

Vitti said the volunteer cohort is one of many literacy-building efforts underway. In addition, he said that every district school will hold family literacy nights and that its Parent Academy will expand its classes that teach parents how to help their children with reading. A community-wide event to teach Detroiters about the reading law — and what they can do to help — will also be held.

Moore said the word is starting to get out about the Let’s Read program, noting: “The telephone has been ringing like crazy. And now the suburban districts want to be part of it.”

The focus, though, is on Detroit, she said.

Want to volunteer: You can fill out a form here, or call 313-873-7884.