preview

Five things to look for in this year’s school-level TCAP scores

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When the state releases its third and final set of test scores for 2014 on Tuesday, it will finally reveal how students at individual schools fared on this year’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP.

In July, the state announced broad trends for the year, revealing that test scores overall crept up this year. Three weeks ago, it unveiled scores by district, showing that Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District had made gains but continue to lag behind the rest of the state.

Now, it is releasing data about individual schools’ performance — a measure that has high stakes for schools, educators, and communities.

The state uses school-level scores to decide which schools to take over or otherwise overhaul, and districts use the scores to decide which schools to close. By law, test scores must also factor in teacher and principal evaluations, and school-wide scores are used to rate teachers in subjects where there is no single state test.

Critics of the state education department say too much emphasis has been placed on test scores. But while the scores certainly don’t tell us everything about what’s happening inside of individual schools, they do forecast where we can expect the state’s and districts’ attention to be focused in the next few years. They also point to differences in how much individual schools put test scores first.

Here are a few things we’ll be looking out for in this round of data:

1. Which schools will land on the state’s second-ever “priority list”?

The state is using this year’s scores to revamp its list of schools in the bottom 5 percent in the state. That list, known as the “priority list,” was first calculated three years ago based on schools’ proficiency rates in reading, math, and science (the formula for high schools includes graduation rate). Any school on the list is eligible to be taken over by the state-run ASD. Several districts, including Nashville and Shelby County Schools, use the scores to determine which schools will be subject to dramatic turnarounds as part of their Innovation Zones.

It will be interesting to where the schools on the list will be: Sixty-nine of the 83 schools on the last list were in Memphis, which has made the city ground zero for the ASD. But officials have hinted that this list could include more schools in other cities, including Nashville. The list will forecast where we can anticipate more takeovers, and more of the drama and strong opinions that accompany them.

And, as both Nashville and Shelby County have indicated that they may soon have charter school operators run low-performing schools, the new list will signal where charter growth is likely in coming years.

2. Did schools benefit from landing on the priority list last time?

Many of the state’s school improvement efforts have been focused on “bottom 5 percent schools,” or those on the first priority list. The new scores will offer one data point about how much those efforts have paid off. If the new “bottom 5 percent” is a higher-scoring group of schools than it was three years ago, look for the state to say that its focus on the lowest-scoring schools has raised the bar for everyone.

The school-by-school data will also show which efforts, if any, are associated with the biggest gains. Not all schools on the priority list received state or district interventions, so there will be a control group to show whether the state’s involvement lifted bottom 5 percent schools beyond where they might have gotten on their own.

3. What difference have state and local changes to how low-scoring schools are operated made for the schools?

The ASD is now in its third year running schools. The state-run district has said that results are mixed. The new scores will show which schools are doing well and which are struggling. Knowing that, we’ll then be able to ask why.

In addition, both Nashville and Shelby County created Innovation Zones, funded by federal grants, to prove that they could improve schools in their own districts without handing them over to the state. Last year, Shelby County’s I-Zone outperformed the state’s ASD. The new scores will show whether I-Zone schools sustained those gains.

One unexpected side effect of the I-Zone, according to Shelby County officials, is that schools that lost staff to I-Zone schools are struggling. The school-level scores will show whether the struggles registered on testing day. If so, it hints at a bigger challenge for districts: How do you make sure you’re really improving all schools, not just shuffling around successful educators?

4. What do individual schools’ scores suggest for Memphis’s new municipal districts? 

Six municipal districts split off from the recently merged Shelby County Schools district. The school-level results will give us a peek about how schools within each of the new districts are doing, and whether we will soon be seeing a more stratified Shelby County, where students in some of the smaller — and more affluent — districts are scoring notably higher than others.

5. How’s Shelby County doing in reading and math? Which schools are leading the pack

Shelby County Schools has set a goal to raise academics and graduation rates throughout the district. Its biggest focus is on literacy. The school-level scores will show us which schools in the district are on track to meet those goals.

We’ll keep an eye out for schools that made larger-than-expected. Who’s got reading programs worth learning from? Where are high schoolers acing their algebra exams? What can schools learn from those leaders and teachers?

And we’ll also be on the lookout for schools that made even less improvement than the district as a whole. Figuring out what’s happening inside those buildings could offer clues about the challenges ahead for efforts to bring improvements.

What else should we be looking for in the school-level test scores? Let us know in the comments section.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: