Be patient

Panelists: Results of education reform will take time

PHOTO: Colorado Education Initiative
Centennial district Principal Curtis Garcia was among experts who discussed educational change at panel discussion.

“Let’s not give up on all the hard work,” Colorado education commissioner Robert Hammond told a Denver audience Thursday, predicting that education reforms enacted in the last six years ultimately will pay off in student achievement.

That sentiment was echoed by panelist Curtis Garcia, school principal in the 220-student Centennial district in the San Luis Valley. “We’re only a few years into some of this change. … I always argue for patience. Give us the time to invest where we know is right.”

The two participated in a panel discussion on student achievement sponsored by the Denver Business Journal and the Colorado Education Initiative. The other panelists were Aurora teacher Jessica Cuthbertson and Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds.

“This is probably the most interesting time to be in education,” Hammond said, noting the wave of major education laws passed in recent years, including requirements for new standards, tests, school accountability, student career and academic plans, and teacher evaluation. “All of that has transpired in the space of a few years.”

But, Hammond noted, “Just remember that last year was the first year our schools were teaching to the new standards.”

He added that the new standards are the centerpiece of educational improvement, saying, “We believe kids with high expectation will attain those expectations, but you need to start with high standards.”

Two sets of Colorado standards, language arts and math, incorporate the Common Core State Standards, which have come under increasing criticism, primarily from conservative groups.

Hammond noted that the state adopted its standards before the Common Core – “Colorado was ahead of the game” and said the “modification was very small.”

Cuthbertson said Colorado’s education system “needs is equitable funding. Some of the initiatives and reform efforts are great strides, but without equitable funding we can only go so far. That would be my plea for our legislature.”

Laband said the state needs to maintain momentum to improve schools – “Shine a bright light on what’s working and turn a bright light on what’s not.”

He said educational improvement is vital for the whole state. “Colorado’s kids right now are not ready for Colorado’s jobs. … It’s a moral issue for Colorado’s kids.”

Laband also made a pitch for the importance of educational data, saying, “Data can drive key decisions” for parents trying to choose schools, for teachers working to improve instruction, for principals who are evaluating teachers, and for policymakers trying to figure out what works.

And data is vital for “identifying the achievement gaps. We need to be mindful of that.”

Anxieties about data privacy and the amount of standardized testing have been rising among parent and activist groups in the last couple of years. A variety of bills to reduce testing, set limits on data collection, pull Colorado out of the Common Core and change the teacher evaluation system are pending during the 2015 legislative session. Some education reform groups fear such measures could weaken the education initiatives of recent years.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly decline — but there are bright spots too

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores mostly decreased this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance dipped in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were bright spots too, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Additionally, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was unexpected because — a surprise since Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the disappointing performance reinforces the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick in this fall, new standards for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In a statement, McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from the most recent results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grades reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on student scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered in the midst of testing that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Wednesday.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”