Shelby County likely to stick with TCAP practice tests, even as Nashville drops them

PHOTO: T.Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
A Colonial Middle School student takes a practice writing test online in January 2014.

Shelby County Schools wants to extend its contract with Discovery Education Assessments, a company that aims to predict student performance on state tests, even after the state’s second-largest school district recently dumped the program.

Nashville is no longer asking schools to use Discovery’s program, arguing that the software seeks to predict scores on a test that the state has decided does not measure up to new, higher standards. Nashville schools will still be allowed to use Discovery practice tests alongside other assessments.

But Shelby County officials say that Discovery remains an essential tool, at least for the next year, while the state seeks bids from testing companies to replace the annual Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program exam, known as TCAP.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer, told the Board of Education in July that Discovery Education is still the system’s “best option” to gauge how well students will perform on the TCAP, whose results are used to judge students, teachers, and schools. He recommended that the district continue funding the program for at least one year, at a price tag of $700,000 for nearly 90,000 students in 2nd through 11th grade.

“It accurately informs teachers of student mastery and areas that need to be retaught,” Leon said.

But a local educator said that has not always been the case. For several years, Shelby County students have taken the tests three times during the school year, twice in the fall and one time in the early spring prior to state tests.

“It’s been off for the past three to four years,” said one Shelby County educator, who spoke to Chalkbeat TN on the condition of anonymity to protect his job. “I don’t rely on it.”

Discovery Education guarantees only a 72 to 84 percent accuracy prediction rate and says teachers should not use its results as their only guide to what students’ state test scores will ultimately be.

“Discovery Education assessments have been developed to inform instruction and support learning, and we believe these should be just one of multiple measures that a district uses to evaluate a student’s progression of knowledge and skills,” according to a statement provided to Chalkbeat TN.

In its statement, Discovery Ed also said its program does reflect the Common Core standards, even though TCAP was not designed with the Common Core in mind — a central concern for Metro Nashville administrators.

“(Discovery Education) is not useful in a post-TCAP environment, and we’re not technically a post-TCAP environment, but we’re operating as if we are because we are ready to use PARCC,” said Joseph Bass, a spokesman for Metro Nashville Public Schools, referring to the new Common Core-aligned tests that Tennessee and other states are considering adopting in the future.

Shelby County School Board member Teresa Jones raised similar concerns during last month’s meeting.

“If Discovery Ed is not aligned to the Common Core, then could this be a waste of time,” Jones asked district leaders during a meeting in July.

When the board votes on the issue, which is expected to happen Aug. 26, Jones could be sole dissenting voice against the program.

No other board members have said they plan to vote against the district’s contract for the program, and a few have said they support its proposed contract.

Both Shante Avant and Chris Caldwell, who held on to their school board seats in this month’s election, told Chalkbeat they would support continuing to use the test predictor software.

“Absent a better option, I’m in favor of using it,” Caldwell said.  “It would be great to have something that could correlate with the state tests by 100 percent. But as long as it’s consistent, teachers and principals can adjust and plan appropriate intervention.”

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at (901) 730-4013. On Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier or @chalkbeattn. On Facebook.
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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede