Are Children Learning

State board of education poised to approve list of Common Core-aligned math textbooks

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The state board of education will most likely approve a new list of math textbooks for the state of Tennessee next week — and unlike books available in the past, they will be aligned with the Common Core State Standards, according to members of the textbook commission that approved them.

That would provide teachers with an extra set of tools to help students meet the standards on high-stakes assessment at the end of the year.

The state approves a new list of textbooks for each subject about every six years. In recent years, though, changes in standards have been swift, with Tennessee adopting new math standards in 2008, and again in 2010, with the introduction of the Common Core.

That means that textbooks have quickly fallen out of date. Experts say that even math books marketed as Common Core-aligned are often far from it. And now, open-source, online and customizable curricular materials are more widely available than ever.

The Tennessee textbook commission, which includes three math teachers from across the state as well as two superintendents and a principal, approved the list of more than 400 books and workbooks earlier this month. The textbooks were evaluated by 38 math teachers from across the state, all of whom had been trained on the state standards for math.

The commission then made recommendations based on the evaluators’ reviews, followed by  a period of public review before the commission finalized it. The reviewers’ focus was on making sure the books were focused on material related to the standards, and making sure the books were rigorous.

Although the state provides the list of approved textbooks, it is up to the discretion of each district to decide which books it will buy, or if it will buy a set of textbooks at all.

Monty Wilson, the head of the textbook commission and a former teacher, said that the aim is to cut the workload for local districts seeking quality materials, because they can focus their search on the materials right for their district on a list of books already screened by the state, rather than every book published in the country.

“A large proportion of work is complete for districts, because we ensure that (the textbooks on the list) meet a certain level of rigor,” he said.

Cory Concus, a math teacher at Covington High School in Tipton County,  served on the math textbook commission this year. Like other Tennessee teachers, he had been underwhelmed by past textbooks because they often covered material that had been taught in earlier grades, while lacking grade-level content. 

He said he was surprised at how rigorous the adoption cycle was, and how much attention was paid to ensure that the approved books were aligned with the standards teachers need to use. The rubric evaluators used (embedded below) stresses the importance of books reflecting Tennessee’s standards, and begins with a notice to evaluators of the importance of standards alignment.

This might be the first year that books aligned with the Common Core even exist, said Morgan Polikoff, a researcher from the University of Southern California.

After most states in the country adopted Common Core State Standards, textbook companies rushed to adapt their textbooks to the new standards — but studies by Polikoff and  William Schmidt at Michigan State University  show that the majority of those books were almost unchanged from pre-Common Core iterations.

“It is a sham,” Schmidt said at the Education Writers Association conference in Nashville in May. “These snake-oil salesmen run over the country and tell all these poor districts and teachers that the books line up. The yellow stamp on the front has nothing to do with the substance within the book.”

Schmidt said books that are Common Core-aligned should cover fewer topics, but more in-depth.

“If we keep teaching—fractions, for example—to very little depth, kids aren’t going to get it and Common Core will be blamed,” he said in May.

Polikoff said that it was possible the books Tennessee approved will be aligned, since they were all published this year. His past studies of books published by Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill showed that even books the publishers claimed to be core-aligned were missing content related to the standards, or had content that was unrelated to the standards. But he said he had not yet studied the books approved by Tennessee, which were published this year.

Teachers who have been relying on online materials, or creating their own, would welcome better texts, said Mary Ashlock, a math teacher in Henry County.

“If I had a textbook that was worth a flip, I would probably use it,” she said.

Here’s the rubric reviewers used:

Surprising report

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

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.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things. (Editor’s note: After this story’s initial publication, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen revealed what the analysis found. Here’s that story.)

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not as much in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.