star power

Matt Damon’s latest role: The voice of an education documentary featuring Tennessee testing

PHOTO: Sarah Mondale, Vera Aronow

Tennessee’s debate about over-testing is a cause célèbre — or at least a cause drawing the attention of Matt Damon.

The movie star narrates a new documentary that explores the privatization of public schools. It features Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, as well as board member Amy Frogge of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge is featured in the documentary.

Called “Backpack Full of Cash,” the 90-minute film was released in late 2016 and screened this week at the Nashville Film Festival.

“I got involved in ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” Damon said in a statement. “… I got a great education in public schools, and my mom is an educator so I know just how hard teachers work every day.”

The segment featuring Gower Elementary was filmed in the spring of 2014 as students prepared for TCAP tests. A scene showing students practicing multiple-choice questions is followed by a comment from education writer David Kirp: “I’ve sat through those classes. I could barely sit still for 42 minutes. They’re asked to do it for 12 years.”

The film details a long list of tests that Gower students take during the school year, ending with four days of state-mandated testing.

Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow said they chose to focus that part of the film on Tennessee because of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top win of $500 million in federal funds, which was spurred by a slew of reforms with test data at their core.

“(Tennessee) was a leader in the use of data and testing to drive education — a key part of market-based school reform,” Mondale said.

The movie also covers charter schools in Philadelphia and school vouchers in New Orleans. Both have been hotly debated issues in Tennessee as well.

The film’s title pokes at an argument often made by school choice advocates: that public money should follow students, no matter what school they attend.

“This idea that education is nothing more than the sum of public money that follows kids around is exactly the argument that the film is trying to refute,” Mondale said.

Since the movie’s filming, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has twice convened task forces to reduce testing, resulting in the elimination of required eighth- and tenth-grade tests. After test times ballooned in the first year of TNReady in 2016, the state shortened the English test this year. (For fifth-graders, it’s dropped from 226 minutes during the last year of TCAP in 2014-15, to 195 minutes this year.) Meanwhile, testing in math has gotten longer (92 minutes in 2014-15 vs. 115 minutes this year), and science has stayed the same. This year’s social studies test is a shortened field test.

McQueen says her department has taken pains to make the current tests more engaging, while emphasizing that the best test prep is “good teaching,” not tedious practice questions.

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a co-production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. and Turnstone Productions. You can find more information about the film and how to watch it here.

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.

 

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: