Shelby County Schools

With hit and miss results, administrators ask for another year with test predictors

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Colonial Middle School eighth graders practice taking the writing assessment online.

Shelby County Schools administrators want to continue using for another year a testing program that attempts to determine how well students will perform on state tests.

That’s despite principals’ and teachers’ concerns that the program, Discovery Education, can sometimes give “way off” results that can grossly alter the year’s curriculum. Tennessee legislators could also scrap TCAP, the state test Discovery Education was designed to predict, by the end of this year.

Several of the district’s schools face the threat of being taken over by the state after producing dismally-low test scores for several years in a row. Test predictors have been heavily used in recent years to avoid that fate.

After administrators advocated for a one year contract extension of Discovery Education during a board meeting Tuesday, board members were presented with the option of finding another vendor or not using any testing system. The majority of the board members indicated they will likely vote to extend the contract at its next meeting in August.

Discovery Education is given to students throughout the district three times a year in written or digital form.  Teachers and principals use the results to design curriculum and figure out which students need extra attention throughout the year. If the vast majority of a third grade teacher’s students scored high on the reading portion of Discovery Education but low in the math portion, the teacher will spend the next quarter emphasizing math, for example.

Administrators say Discovery Education is usually 72 to 84 percent accurate in predicting how well a student will do on the TCAP.

“We feel that’s strong,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer. “It accurately can inform teachers of student mastery and areas that need to be retaught.”

But at least one principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his job, said the program was “way off” in predicting how well his school would do during a previous school year. It left the teachers with disappointing results and the risk of their evaluations being damaged, he said.

The district, like most in Tennessee, received a surprising blow earlier this spring when the Tennessee General Assembly voted to delay the PARCC assessment for a year and put out another request for proposal. Several legislators felt the state was moving too fast with the new test that would hold high stakes for teachers.

While testing students is a necessity for the district, board member Teresa Jones raised concern Tuesday that using a test that isn’t Common Core or PARCC (Partnership for  Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) -aligned could be a “waste of time” for the district’s students, teachers and principals.

The district participated in several test-runs of the online assessment, bought new computers and expanded its wi-fi network in preparation for PARCC.

Knowing PARCC will not be used in 2014-15, Hopson said Tuesday, does not negate the necessity for the district to have a test that gauges where students are academically.

Since the students will be taking the TCAP in the spring of 2015 and Discovery Education is used to predict performance on that test, Hopson argued it was the district’s best course of action this fall.

The last contract cost the district more than $800,000.

While the future of Discovery Education has yet to be determined, the Shelby County Schools board voted unanimously to expand the use of Istation, another testing tool that predicts literacy test scores, to all of its schools this fall. That program costs around $1 million.  Teachers can use the program, which features lesson plans and interactive quizzes, throughout the year.

The program was used last year in some schools that face especially challenging circumstances like Sharpe Elementary where 70 percent of its students were reading below grade.

“I feel that Istation has made us more aware of where our students were reading, and it holds the entire school more accountable,” said Stephanie Gatewood, who is the school’s family services specialist. “The most powerful element is the real time data, and the ability to drill down into the students’ level of literacy. Mandating that all schools use Istation would be a very wise move for the district: it’s a powerful tool.”

While recognizing that IStation works, Hopson also said he’s aware that people say students are tested too much, but the district has to have a way to assess student performance.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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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.