Clarion call

Memphis teachers union calls on Tennessee to invalidate TNReady over scoring errors

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Tikeila Rucker, president of United Education Association of Shelby County, calls on the state to invalidate TNReady test results because of scoring errors for some high school students.

The incorrect scoring of state tests for more than a thousand Memphis students was the last straw for one of the city’s two major teacher unions.

The United Education Association of Shelby County called on Tennessee Monday to invalidate test scores statewide in light of news that its testing vendor incorrectly scored nearly 10,000 tests due to a programming error.

During a morning news conference, the union also called for a moratorium until 2021 on using the TNReady test in its accountability system. In addition, union leaders urged state lawmakers to hold public hearings on the state’s testing challenges.

From the State Capitol, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell called Monday for a hearing in Nashville on the matter.

“We have made great strides over the last several years in education, and we must be diligent in ensuring we continue these gains,” Harwell said in a statement. “We know that accountability has been a large part of this improvement. However, the news that nearly 10,000 TNReady tests were scored incorrectly has resulted in educators, parents, and legislators seeking answers.”

Test scores and how they measure student growth are critical components of Tennessee’s new accountability system under the new federal education law. In many districts, teacher pay and evaluations also hinge on test scores.

“This is the third year in a row that we’ve experienced issues regarding TNReady, which leads us to have zero confidence in TNReady, Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education,” said Shelby County UEA President Tikeila Rucker on behalf of the union’s 2,000 members.

State officials report that the errors make up less than 1 percent of high school end-of-course tests statewide, and that score results for grades 3-8 are correct and final. Less than 1,700 of Tennessee’s 1.9 million TNReady exams will receive a different performance level score as a result of the corrected scores, according to spokeswoman Sara Gast of the Department of Education.

“For the most part, students’ scores do not meaningfully change,” Gast said Monday.

But Rucker worried that the problem may be more widespread.

“It’s as if you had a piece of pie, and I find a piece of glass in it,” she said. “But I cut somebody else a piece of that same pie and assure you ‘You don’t have glass in yours.’ Are you going to trust me and eat that piece of pie knowing that there’s a piece of glass in mine?”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and school board chair Shante Avant also spoke at the press conference.

“We stand in solidarity with our teachers. We know the (state) Department of Education is working very hard,” Hopson told reporters. “But given the high-stakes nature of the test, we just want to be accurate. And when they’re not accurate, it just casts a cloud of doubt over the whole process.”

Hopson stopped short of calling for test scores to be invalidated. “I wouldn’t necessarily jump to that conclusion,” he said, “but I do agree with our teaching colleagues that the results need to be accurate and timely.”

Tennessee has been beset by testing challenges since the 2016 launch of TNReady, including the test’s cancellation for grades 3-8 due to an online snafu in its first year. The second year of testing appeared to go better, and the state has been releasing scores gradually over the summer and fall. The scoring problem affecting 33 districts was revealed late last week in an email from Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns to district superintendents and directors statewide.

Gast said all 33 districts have received their corrected scores. In East Tennessee, for instance, Maryville City Schools saw a 7 percent increase in the number of students who scored “on track” or “mastered” once they received corrected scores, according to The Daily Times.

Tennessee signed its $30 million contract with Questar in July 2016 after firing Measurement Inc. due to the botched rollout of TNReady.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from a state spokeswoman.

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.