When Kristin Cornwell, a 4th grade teacher at Aspire Hanley 1, a charter school in Orange Mound, started evaluating her students in math this year, she thought they were the best prepared of any group she’d seen in her four years at the school.
“I saw a huge difference in students’ conceptual understanding of math,” she said. “They could explain why they were doing different things.”
But those same fourth graders’ scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, the state’s standardized test, were significantly lower than the scores of students who had been there the year before.
In 2013, Memphis public school Hanley Elementary was taken over by the state-run Achievement School District and split into two Aspire charter schools, with new staffs and programs but similar enrollment, on the same campus. Since the takeover, the percent of students scoring proficient or advanced on state tests has dropped precipitously.
In 2012-13, before the takeover, 22.7 percent of Hanley Elementary’s tested students scored proficient or advanced in math and 10.4 percent were proficient or advanced in reading.
In 2013-14, 9.9 percent of students at Hanley 1 scored proficient or advanced in math, and just 5.2 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. At Hanley 2, 6.3 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math and 4.7 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. That placed both schools in the state’s lowest category for student growth in both subjects.
Aspire’s scores were the lowest in the ASD, which takes over schools academically ranked in the bottom 5 percent of in the state in an attempt to improve them.
School leaders’ and teachers’ explanation: Aspire chose to prepare students only for tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee adopted in 2010, rather than for TCAP, which was written to match an older set of standards. Aspire said both the content of the TCAP and its form (bubble-in, pencil-and-paper tests) were different than what students practiced all year (online tests, more open-ended questions).
“The theory was that we were going to make progress by jumping into Common Core,” said Allison Leslie, the director of Aspire’s schools in Memphis. “That didn’t prove to be the case. We’re disappointed but not surprised.”
Ilana Horn, a professor at the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, said in an email that Aspire’s attributing the drop in scores to Common Core standards did seem surprising: “The analyses I have seen say that Common Core Standards are at a higher level than the old Tennessee state standards. If they had prepared the children for CCSS, they would presumably be ahead in the curriculum.”
She said there could be some validity to the explanation if the new tests were less “reflective of what they had done in class” or if the new, more rigorous standards were less accessible to students.
Tennessee had planned to begin using PARCC, an online test tied to the Common Core standards, rather than TCAP, starting this school year. Rather than spending a single year after the takeover at Hanley preparing students for TCAP, Aspire’s school leaders went all in with PARCC preparation.
Then the state’s legislature voted last spring to require the state to administer TCAP in 2014-15, and to reevaluate whether to use PARCC at all.
The state has adjusted the TCAP in an effort to make the tests more closely aligned to the Common Core, which aims to focus on fewer subjects in more depth each year. Average scores across Tennessee rose this year in most tested subjects.
Now Aspire is tying its curriculum to the standards tested on TCAP and specifically preparing students for TCAP-style questions, hoping to boost scores in the next round of tests. “We’re going to get the tested standards in,” said Megan McGrail, the principal at Hanley 1.
Most Tennessee schools did not go as far as Aspire in moving toward PARCC-style assessment and away from TCAP preparation. But schools across Tennessee have been in a state of limbo, aligning lessons and instruction with one set of standards while being evaluated using a test that was initially designed based on another.
The state’s largest teachers association and both the Nashville and Shelby County superintendents have said the discrepancy between test and standards is a problem. Chris Barbic, superintendent of the ASD, said in an interview, “we’ve got to know that the assessment we’re being held accountable to—teachers, schools, districts—lines up with what the state’s expecting us to teach.”
Shelby County Schools, and most districts in the state, provided a curriculum guide tied both to the old and new standards. “If a teacher followed the pacing guide, they would have been prepared,” said Shawn Page, the principal of White Station Middle School in Shelby County Schools. Students at White Station are assessed throughout the year with tests similar in format to the TCAP while also practicing the more open-ended questions favored on Common Core-based tests, he said.
Aspire’s dramatic drop in scores will have fewer consequences for adults in the building than similar changes might have in other schools: Unlike Shelby County Schools and most other districts in the state, Aspire does not tie TCAP scores to teacher evaluations. And since it was just taken over by the ASD, the school is not facing another dramatic restructuring for at least two more years.
But, Cornwell said, “the painful thing is, even though that’s not Aspire’s evaluation, test scores are still how the state of Tennessee values and puts a number on a teacher and a school,” she said.
Leslie said that internal surveys of the employee, student and parent satisfaction and students’ scores on other reading assessments led her to believe that the school is on the right track and will do better on the next round of tests. The school also uses a blended learning model that uses online and classroom curriculum McGrail said would prepare students for online assessments, if and when they replace the current test.
“What we did is disruptive,” Leslie said. “We think we’ll see incremental changes. It’s like the tortoise-and-the-hare.”
Cornwell said that she had seen the school shift from focusing mainly on TCAP preparation to introducing Common Core-style instruction in 2012-13; and then moving entirely to Common Core under new leadership. “I have been here long enough for the pendulum to swing all the way.”
“Every year it’s that balance of, how do we teach that deep conceptual understanding we know is best for kids and will prepare them for college—and still get them ready so they can prove to the state of Tennessee that they’re growing and learning?”