Are Children Learning

PARCC leaders bullish on field test results, short on details

Officials of the PARCC testing consortium told reporters Thursday that spring field tests of language arts and math went well — but they offered few details because they still are analyzing the results.

“We learned a lot,” said Laura Slover, CEO of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. “Things are going very well.”

She also noted, “We said there might be glitches; in fact there were a few glitches,” primarily easily fixed technical ones.

Colorado participated in the field tests and is scheduled to administer the PARCC assessments in grades three through 11 next spring, replacing the TCAP testing system. (Get details here.)

Nationwide, sample tests were given this spring to about 1 million students in 16,000 schools in 14 states and the District of Columbia, said Jeffrey Nellhaus, PARCC director of policy, research and design during a conference call with reporters.

More than 10,000 different questions – “items” as they’re called in assessment jargon – on 21 different tests were used. About three-quarters of the tests were given on computer and a quarter on paper.

“The purpose of the field test was to test the test questions,” Nellhaus said, not to determine student proficiency.

But because PARCC experts are still compiling and evaluating the results, they don’t yet have detailed answers about how those questions performed.

Among things that need to be analyzed are the validity, reliability and fairness of test questions and whether students performed differently depending on whether they took the tests on computers or paper and depending on what kind of electronic devices they used. PARCC also still needs to compile the results and teacher and student surveys.

Slover noted that every question went through five reviews before being used, so she’s confident about their reliability and validity. “In the fall we’ll know whether that is true.”

Nellhaus said the field testing did reveal that test administration manuals need streamlining, some student directions need clarification and that some online tools like a math equation editor need improvements. “There are some things that need to be perfected.”

PARCC is in the middle of the growing national debate over the Common Core Standards, multi-state testing and education centralization.

On Wednesday Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced plans to pull his state out of the standards and PARCC, a moved opposed by the state’s commissioner of education, state board and some legislators (more details here).

Slover chose her words carefully when asked about that, saying, “We’re committed to proceeding under the memorandum of understanding that is in existence” with Louisiana.

She was equally cautious when asked about a PARCC-related contract dispute in New Mexico.

Officials in that state are negotiating a testing contract on behalf of all PARCC states. The process was challenged by the testing company American Institutes for Research, which claimed the specifications were tailored for the Pearson testing group.

New Mexico officials tossed out AIR’s appeal, but a judge in Santa Fe ruled last month that the state has to consider the protest. (Get more details in this EdWeek story.)

Slover Thursday said “anything that slows down the process” could be a concern but that “We’re confident the process was fair and open” and will be resolved.

Testing concerns started bubbling up in Colorado earlier this year, with both Republican legislators and the Colorado Education Association raising criticisms of PARCC. The debate is expected to resume later this summer, when a 15-member Standards and Assessments Task Force created by the legislature will begin its work (background 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.