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.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.