Testing worries

Feelings mixed on where to go from here on testing

A study done for state Department of Education has found significant worries about the burden of state and district testing but reported somewhat mixed views about the details of what should be done next.

Educators, administrators and parents who were surveyed for the study generally agreed that last spring’s round of testing went better than anticipated and produced limited difficulties, especially for students. There was agreement that schools need more computers and other devices for online tests, and that the number and length of tests should be trimmed.

“They want fewer, shorter tests,” Sheila Arredondo, one of the researchers who worked on the study, told the State Board of Education during a briefing last week.

There was less agreement on how to accomplish those things, and there were significant differences of opinion among urban, suburban and rural districts.

The State Standards and Assessments Task Force will be briefed on the study today. The review was launched late last year by CDE as public and legislative concerns about testing were building ahead of the full launch of new online tests in 2015. The task force subsequently was created by the legislature. (Get more details on the group here.)

WestEd, a California-based education-consulting organization, did the review at no cost to the state. (WestEd and similar regional comprehensive centers around the nation are federally funded.)

The study was designed to gauge educator and parent attitudes about tests and was not intended to review the content of state academic standards or tests nor provide a cost-benefit analysis of assessments.

In a first phase, researchers conducted 11 focus groups and did a survey of district testing coordinators last winter and spring before the start of annual testing, which this year included new online social studies and science tests and practice PARCC tests in 96 districts.

In the second phase, after testing was finished, researchers had follow-up conversations and interviews, conducted another focus group and re-surveyed district assessment coordinators. Out of 178 school districts, 87 coordinators completed the nine-question survey, 72 percent of those from rural districts, 14 urban and 13 percent suburban.

A report summary cautioned, “Results may not generalize to the larger population. Districts [were] weighted equally – rather than by student enrollment, thus views of rural districts with small student populations have proportionally higher impact on results.”

What the survey found

Here’s the report’s top-level summary of the feedback received about options for changing the testing system:

  • Online testing – Don’t revert to paper-and-pencil tests.
  • Technology – Districts need emergency funds to buy more computers, laptops and tablets.
  • Length of assessments – There’s strong support for fewer, shorter tests.
  • Number of tests – There’s also substantial support for optional school readiness tests and reduction of testing to federal minimum requirements – basically language arts and math tests from 3rd to 9th grade and once in high school.

Surveyors posed several questions and suggestions to district testing coordinators during the second round of work. Here’s a summary of the responses to key questions. Respondents were given four test-reduction options and asked to rate each on a five-step scale.

  • Technology readiness – The top priority for respondents was emergency funding to buy more computers and devices.
  • Amount of testing – Some 45 percent “strongly” supported elimination of new school readiness evaluations, followed by 43 percent in strong support of cutting Colorado testing back to only what the federal government requires.
  • Length of tests – Some 46 percent strongly supported shortening social studies tests while 43 percent had the sentiment about language arts and math tests.
  • Top concern – Asked to rank the biggest testing implementation issues for primary and secondary schools, respondents listed “too many assessments” as the top concern.

People who were surveyed also were asked yes-no-neutral questions on other issues, including:

  • Flexibility – Allow districts to give English tests online but math tests on paper if they choose. 38 percent support, 37 percent oppose, 25 percent neutral.
  • Third-grade tests – Give paper-and-pencil tests to students in 3rd grade, the first year students take standardized tests. 43 percent support, 39 percent oppose, 18 percent neutral.
  • High school test reduction – Eliminate all high school standardized testing expect ACT. 46 percent support, 40 percent oppose, 14 percent neutral.
  • High school test timing – Give science and social studies tests in different years, rather than both in 12th grade. 65 percent support, 13 percent oppose, 22 percent neutral.

See details on responses here:

The testing task force is assigned to make recommendations to the legislature on a variety of testing issues. During their discussion last week, members of the State Board expressed interest in making their own suggestions, and testing is expected to again be a major focus for the board at its September meeting.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

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.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

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.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.