Are Children Learning

Researchers explore what’s missing from debate on standards, testing

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Panelists from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education discuss the current public debate around standards and testing in Tennessee.

While most public opposition to the Common Core State Standards in Tennessee has come from political conservatives wary about losing local control of schools, there’s also concern that the academic standards are inextricably tied to a larger system of high-stakes standardized testing.

It doesn’t have to be that way, concluded a panel of researchers from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education on Monday during a forum on K-12 education in Tennessee.

Panelists suggested that uniform standards such as the Common Core can lead to more creative teaching, deeper learning and even better tests – if educators and policymakers can reach a consensus on the purpose of tests.

“I think it’s a good idea that we have a statement on what we think every kid in the country should know and be able to do,” said Barbara Stengel, a Peabody professor.

“We have a tendency to think, ‘Yeah, what I’m doing here is the right way to do it.’ We need some way of checking that, and standards are a good way to do that,” Stengel said. “Stated standards take me out of my corner, my community, even my state, and remind me what kids out there in the wide world are doing.”

In Tennessee, the Common Core and the impending arrival of a new standards-aligned assessment have dominated much of the debate about public education during the last year, including a handful of bills filed this year in the Tennessee General Assembly that would scrap the state’s current standards.

Panelists said Common Core standards and Next Generation – the national science standards developed by 26 states, including Tennessee – provide a springboard for students to “receive” math and science knowledge through passive lectures, but also to generate the knowledge themselves through hands-on classroom activities.

However, once-a-year tests mandated by the federal government can’t assess that kind of nuanced learning and don’t help teachers improve instruction, said Rich Lehrer, another Peabody professor

“If we want to engage children and older students in the production of mathematics and science knowledge, then there are very severe limitations of one-time tests to do that,” he said. “We’re going to have to broaden what we think of assessments.” As an example of a high-quality assessment, he cited a classroom experiment on silkworms, complete with open-ended, qualitative answers.

Marcy Singer-Gabella, the chief academic officer for Project GRAD, a partnership between Vanderbilt and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, said such an assessment is more helpful to teachers because it gives insight into students’ ability to reason. “If we are unable to see what is happening inside the minds of students, it’s very difficult to know what I should be doing differently tomorrow,” she said.

The conversation around assessments changes, however, when the primary function of tests is to to make decisions about teacher hiring and firing or school closures —  an idea that all of the panelists were wary of.

“We don’t understand the impacts of high-stakes testing,” Singer-Gabella said. “In fact, there is so much noise in the system around testing that it is at our peril that we make consequential decisions based only on test scores.”

Singer-Garbella added that research shows that pegging teachers through test scores is especially problematic – since an individual teacher’s impact on student learning is probably only around 10 percent.

Carol Johnson, who led the former Memphis City Schools and Boston Public Schools, is now a visiting professor at Vanderbilt. She said the focus on individual teachers’ scores undermines teamwork – a key ingredient to teacher success. She also said that the increasing use of test scores to make decisions about teachers and schools can discourage teachers from going to the schools that are most in need.

“Teachers are much more reluctant to work in a school with high poverty in an environment where the accountability consequences are so severe that you might lose your job or you might not be rewarded if you happen to be teaching at a school where you can predict the outcomes for kids will be lower,” she said.

Stengel said public discussion around standards and tests should be aligned with the overall purpose of education.

“I think we want graduates who are both good and smart. We want them to be smart enough to think through the problems of the day, but we also want them to be . . . good at whatever the universe is calling them to do to contribute to our shared community,” she said.

Stengel said the most important question is whether standards are advancing the overall educational purpose. “Does the current regime of high-stakes testing contribute to making our students both good and smart?” she asked.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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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.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

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.

Scores in

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

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

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

But there were a few bright spots, 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.

Also, 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 not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce 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 off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade 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 in a statement.

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 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 the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school 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.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.