Are Children Learning

As TCAP era ends, school districts tout gains and one looks forward to new tests

Late last week the Colorado Department of Education released the latest — and last — round of student results from the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, or TCAP, and ACT. As a state, students showed no progress on the TCAP. In fact, most grades saw slight dips in math, reading, and writing.

Meanwhile, the state’s composite ACT score a third of a point.

Despite the across-the-board dips, some school districts, including those on the state’s accountability watch list, have taken the opportunity to highlight individual gains in specific areas.

Here’s a sample of what some school leaders had to say via statements emailed to the media last week:

Sheridan third graders posted an 18 point gain in 2014. And the district had gains in math at all grade levels, including an 11 point gain by eighth graders. Math has been an area the district has consistently had issues with. Last year, they implemented a second math period at its middle school. Deputy Superintendent Jackie Webb said the number of partially proficient students is decreasing as the district heads into its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock. But the work isn’t over.

“Are the final achievement levels where we want them to be? The answer is no. But progress starts with establishing success and these last two years of data have shown that Sheridan students are fully capable and continuing to meet higher expectations. Overall, we are very pleased with these results.”

Meanwhile, District 49 leaders in Colorado Springs said they’re pleased with the results of their own internal assessments and are looking forward to the state’s new online-based assessments that students will take in spring. “While not satisfactory, [TCAP results] sharpen our urgency to begin the CMAS era with even better results for our students,” said Peter Hilts, chief education officer.

“The new tests are an increasingly valid target for student assessment, they are a more accurate proxy for where students actually are.”

Jeffco Public Schools officials pointed out their TCAP scores “remained relatively stable.” Newly minted Chief Academic Officer Syna Morgan highlighted math and ACT increases while pointing out the the tests are just one data point.

“In math, we saw great gains with our Jeffco eighth and ninth graders who gained three to four points in proficiency from last year. Jeffco continued to outpace the state on the Colorado ACT scores by raising the score from 21.2 in 2013 to 21.5 in 2014. While the TCAP results provide one view of the academic performance of Jeffco students, we look forward to providing a body of evidence to show the full picture of student success.”

While TCAP proficiency rates have stalled in Denver Public Schools, the composite ACT score for the district continues to climb. It jumped about a half a point this year to 18.4. Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a statement:

“While we still have much work to do to realize that goal, it’s encouraging to see more and more of our students reaching these important college readiness benchmarks. Now we need to take our efforts to the next level so that we’re ensuring every student reaches his or her potential.”

Douglas County Public Schools continued to outpace the state in both TCAP proficiencies and the ACT, said Superintendent Liz Fagen. But, like Jeffco, Fagen said TCAP is just one data point. Her statement also highlighted that Highlands Ranch and Ponderosa high schools outscored several of the world’s best countries on the international PISA tests.

“Providing a world-class education for all students is our goal and TCAP scores are one data point. However, we know that a quality body of evidence is the best picture of how our students are doing on the outcomes we value most — we are committed to measuring what matters most using the best strategies for our students.”

Adams 50 school district leaders say they’re on to something with their competency-based model. The district, another of the state’s lowest performing, showed gains in 19 of the 24 TCAP tests, more than any other district in the Denver-metro area, said Superintendent Pamela Swanson.

“The latest results are further evidence that our [competency-based system] model is the right approach to educating all our children. While comparisons with other districts help to illustrate a positive trend, we won’t be satisfied until all our students are learning to their full potential.”

Surprising report

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.