Are Children Learning

Chicago students show slight gains in math on national exam, while reading plateaus

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke/Chalkbeat C
A classroom at Josephine Locke, where NWEA test results were announced Wednesday

Chicago students showed small gains in math but saw scores flatline in reading, according to new test scores released Wednesday.

Chicago Public Schools officials cited the new scores, on a national test called NWEA that city students take each year, as evidence that the district’s efforts to boost math skills are paying off. A school’s NWEA scores determine a big part of its quality rating, meaning that a district’s top-rated schools generally have stronger scores. Click here to use our database and see how your school stacks up.

The latest scores are separate from Illinois state test results. But they matter a lot in Chicago, where they also factor into an eighth-grader’s admission score to selective enrollment high schools and other competitive programs. A boost now offers Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is up for reelection, another data point to cite in his contested bid, adding to a recent study by a Stanford University researcher that identified Chicago as the fastest-improving urban district in the country.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke/Chalkbeat
Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson

Announcing the scores at Josephine Locke Elementary in Montclare, on the Far West Side just over the border from suburban Elmwood Park, Emanuel said the city isn’t yet satisfied with how students are performing, but their long-term progress was worth celebrating.

“If you know anything about Chicago Public Schools, and the teachers and the principals throughout the system, nobody is spiking the ball at the 20-yard line,” said Emanuel, alongside Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson. “But we should take note that, a short time ago, we were less than 50 percent of our kids reading or doing math at grade level or exceeding that.”

In reading, 61.4 percent of the district’s students in grades two through eight were on pace with their peers nationally or exceeding them, the same as in spring 2017. In math, 56.6 percent of students were on pace or exceeding it in spring 2018, compared to 55.9 percent the year prior.

In terms of how much progress students made over a single school year — their growth, in testing terms — 58.1 percent of Chicago students made the national average amount of progress in reading; 56.8 percent made the national average amount of progress in math.

Asked afterwards how specific groups of students performed, Jackson said half of black students in Chicago still aren’t achieving at grade level. When it comes to Latino learners, 61 percent met or exceeded grade level on the national assessment, compared to 86 percent of Asian students and 83.7 percent of whites. Latinos and African-American students make up the vast majority of the Chicago Public Schools population.

Jackson also said the district recognizes the stagnation, but the district has charged administrators with doing a better job by its black students this year. They’ve also worked to spread the word about the rollout of universal pre-K, which she believes will give children, particularly low-income ones, a stronger academic foundation.

“What got us to this point won’t get us to the next level,” she said.

Chicago schools administer the NWEA-MAP assessment in spring to second- through eighth-graders, with the option to use it as a midyear assessment. Many schools exercise this option so that teachers have a yardstick for student progress.

John Fitzpatrick, the principal at Locke, a pre-K-to-8 neighborhood school that is predominantly Latino, said he’s watched his school’s reading scores increase after putting new emphasis on reading, and math scores increase after focusing on math. This year, they used the assessment in first through eighth grade to tailor small group instruction in math, he said.

“So now we are trying to balance the whole thing,” he said. Still, scores don’t jump every year, he added.

“It’s like being on a diet and going on a scale — you can’t get frustrated. A couple of weeks you are going to stay the same. You just have to keep going.”

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: