Are Children Learning

Superintendents to General Assembly: Please do not ‘derail’ standards

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Flanked by several school district superintendents and directors, spokesman Wayne Miller addresses media at the State Capitol in January. Miller is executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

School superintendents across Tennessee urged state lawmakers Tuesday not to “derail” the state’s educational momentum by repealing the Common Core State Standards during the current legislative session.

In a letter signed by 114 of the state’s 141 superintendents, district administrators asked lawmakers instead to maintain the state’s current academic standards, at least until Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the state Board of Education completes their review of the standards this fall.

The superintendents also asked that the planned 2015-16 implementation of Tennessee’s new standardized test, which is under development to align with the current standards, be allowed to proceed without delay.

“Teachers have been working hard and preparing for this assessment,” the letter says. “It would be a huge blow to the morale of educators if the General Assembly passes legislation that puts Tennessee on a path to change standards once again or alters the timeline for the new assessment.”

Common Core State Standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that clarify the skills each child should have at each grade level. In 2010, Tennessee joined most other states in implementing the standards and has been developing a test to align with them to accurately measure students’ academic progress. However, the standards have come under fire from many state legislators who view them as federal overreach because of their ties to education grant programs under President Obama’s administration. Two bills before the Tennessee General Assembly would repeal the standards, including one scheduled to go before a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

The superintendents’ letter was released by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), which represents local superintendents and school directors, to interject the voices of educators in the debate.

“This work is paying off,” said TOSS board chairman Randy Frazier, director of Weakley County Schools. “Tennessee has received national attention for historic gains in student achievement. That’s why we say to the General Assembly, please do not derail this momentum.”

Among those signing the letter were the superintendents of all four of Tennessee’s largest school districts.

In his 2015 State of the State address on Monday, Haslam called for more stability in the state’s education policy and urged lawmakers to stick with the current standards, at least for now. Last October, Haslam announced that the standards would undergo a period of intense review and, a month later, his administration established a website seeking comments and feedback. The site has received 82,000 comments so far.

“There has been unprecedented participation in the review process, especially by Tennessee teachers,” the superintendents’ letter says. “We ask that their input be valued and that we move forward with efforts to improve and enhance our current standards and truly make them our own, while also giving educators and students the stability they desire and deserve.”

If lawmakers vote to replace the standards, it will be the third time in seven years that Tennessee has done so. In 2008, Tennessee adopted the Tennessee Diploma standards and, two years later, began to implement Common Core and a bevy of other reforms tied to winning $500 million in federal money through Race to the Top.

“Teachers have worked for years learning through the professional learning opportunities through the state and districts, countless hours, and funds,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools, during a TOSS news conference outside of the Senate chambers in Nashville. “They’ve created curriculums that will go along with these standards that will be challenging and engaging for our students.”

Ailshie acknowledged concern that the current standards weren’t developed by the state for the state. However, he said they are a good foundation to build on. “I’ve maintained these are our standards, and we could even make them more our standards if we maintain the course the governor has set out for us,” he said.

The superintendents say that switching standards this year — just months before the state switches to a new assessment, TNReady — will cause confusion and stress for teachers whose evaluations are tied to student achievement.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state’s largest teacher union, also supports the current review process and urges teachers to participate. “It’s time we settled down and utilize the things we have now,” said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye.

TOSS executive director Wayne Miller said much of the standards controversy stems from misinformation. For instance, he said, assertions are untrue that Common Core was created by the federal government, or that they are a set of prescriptive tasks teachers must undergo in the classroom. He said participating in the review process, which involves reading each standard and offering suggestions to improve them, would help allay concerns.

Creation of Common Core was sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Before they were adopted by most states, state standards varied widely across the nation.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Despite pleas from Haslam and education advocacy groups, key lawmakers expect the legislature to continue with its own assessment of the standards and possibly to repeal them. “I think it’s a given: Common Core is dead in the state of Tennessee, and everybody knows it,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) told The Tennessean following Haslam’s address.

Miller said TOSS is ready to talk with standards naysayers such as Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and sponsor of a bill to replace Common Core before the review is complete.

“[Gresham] understands there needs to be a balance between what she’s hearing from her constituents, and what she knows to be happening in classrooms,” Miller said.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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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: