measuring up

Decline in reading scores a dark spot in otherwise sunny test score trends

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam present statewide TCAP results for 2015 in early July. For the most part, scores went up statewide. But at individual schools, it can be hard to explain why.

Even as Tennessee students continued to make substantial gains in math and science this year, their reading test scores remain stubbornly low, state education officials announced Thursday.

And officials began to lay the groundwork for declines next year, when the state for the first time will administer a test that reflects the Common Core standards.

Just 48.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 passed the state’s proficiency bar in reading, down from a peak of 50.5 percent in 2013 and 49.5 percent last year.

The trajectory was very different in math, where 55.6 percent of students in grades 3-8 met the state’s proficiency standards this year. The 4.3 point single-year gain in math means that Tennessee students have increased their math proficiency rate by 21 points since 2010, in a shift that a national exam that compares student performance across states has borne out.

“We have a lot to celebrate in these results,” Gov. Bill Haslam said at a press conference in Nashville. “I also want to use these results to examine where we need to improve.”

(Here’s our preview of the new test scores and what they mean — and don’t mean.)

Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said they saw promising signs in higher-than-ever math scores, across-the-board high school gains, and a narrowing of the performance gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.

As he did last year, Haslam credited the gains to policy changes triggered by a 2010 state law called “First to the Top.” Those included adopting new standards, mandating the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and targeting resources to the neediest schools.

But he and McQueen said they could not explain why reading test scores had inched downward for the second year in a row and now are essentially the same as they were before any of the policy changes took place.

The fact that students with disabilities took the regular state exams, instead of an alternative test, for the first time this year  might have impacted literacy scores, but not much, McQueen said.

“We have a clear trend that has nothing to do with that,” she said.

She and Haslam did not announce any major policy changes to address the lagging literacy scores but did say that the state would focus more on English language learners, students with special needs, and early childhood education.

“We have seen reading scores remain relatively flat in early grades over the past five years, yet we know this is one of the most critical skills we can equip our students with for success in life,” McQueen said. “It’s our job to ensure that Tennessee students are prepared to take advantage of opportunities after graduation, and we must continue to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to reach all students.”

McQueen attributed gains by black, Hispanic, Native American, and poor students in all high school subjects and 3-8 math and reading to higher expectations and to a new program, called Response to Instruction and Intervention or RTI-squared, that is meant to ensure that schools reach their most struggling students.

“We’re seeing growth we expected to happen when you use RTI appropriately and you also begin to transition to what the belief of ‘all means all’ does to actually impact behavior,” she said.

High school scores had the most significant growth, suggesting that previous gains in elementary and middle school grades have begun to bear fruit.

The gains were sharpest for Algebra II, considered to be a make-or-break course for students’ future success in college. More than 54 percent of students in 2015 performed at or above grade level, compared to less than a third in 2011 and almost 48 percent last year.

McQueen said the advances could be tied to higher expectations. The state has ramped up efforts to graduate more students on time and has made college more attainable through Tennessee Promise, which allows graduating high school seniors to attend two years of community college for free.

“Our high school students see what’s next,” McQueen said. “They see the possibilities, and their ability to do that.”

McQueen said she expects to see test scores fall across the board next year, when the state transitions to TNReady, a Common Core-aligned test that is supposed to assess higher-order thinking skills and, unlike this year’s tests, will require students to provide their own answers rather than simply select from multiple choices.

The new test will more accurately reflect what students have learned, she said, adding that she expects to see growth after the first year. (Those trends have played out in most states that have already started giving tests that reflect the new standards.)

“Our upward trends as a state show a story of progress,” she said. “We know we have more work to do, but this is a great story for Tennessee.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: