Taking a hit

By getting testing wrong again, Tennessee could undo what it may be getting right

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam attends a Knoxville school assembly in 2016 to celebrate Tennessee outpacing almost all other states in gains on a national science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

After languishing for decades, Tennessee is now considered a pioneer in education improvement circles, while its standing on national tests has risen from the bottom to the middle of the pack over the last decade.

Quick to embrace higher academic standards, the state also explored new strategies to transform struggling schools and adopted a controversial teacher evaluation system grounded in student performance. With its 2010 federal Race to the Top award, it poured millions of dollars into teacher training and coaching.

So it was dumbfounding this spring when a third straight year of problems emerged with TNReady, the standardized test that’s the centerpiece of Tennessee’s policy agenda aimed at becoming a national leader in student achievement.

After a failed rollout of computerized testing in 2016 and scoring issues in 2017, the stakes had never been higher to administer the test successfully.

But on the very first day, thousands of students struggled to advance past the login page — and things went downhill from there. Subsequent testing days were marred by a cyber attack, a fiber optic cable cut by a dump truck in rural Tennessee, and a systems design error that made 1,400 students take the wrong exam.

By the time the state limped across the finish line last week, technical glitches had interrupted more than half of the original testing days, and state lawmakers had passed emergency legislation weakening how the results can be used.

“We’ve failed significantly with TNReady — not once, not twice, but three times,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democratic candidate for governor and member of a House education committee. “It hurts systems that are already beset with credibility problems.”

Now, many stakeholders worry that public outcry over this year’s sloppy testing will unravel years of carefully crafted accountability work in public education.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the front podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 25, the last day of the 2018 legislative session, as the chamber’s education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year’s TNReady scores.

An early sign came when lawmakers stepped in before testing was even finished to shield students, teachers, schools, and districts from the state’s score-driven accountability systems.

“It happened so quickly and passed with such a large majority that it was jarring to those of us who thought we had some serious momentum with the systems we’ve been working on for years,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, leader of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force.

“It’s created this environment of instability going into a gubernatorial election year, and you begin to wonder what else could be wiped away.”

Politics of education

Over the last 16 years, Tennessee has managed to follow the same general roadmap for improving its schools — first under the administration of Democrat Phil Bredesen and now under Republican Bill Haslam.

But this year’s near meltdown of testing has put Haslam’s administration on the defense in the governor’s final year in office.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and her team are trying to see if the test results are valid and how they can be used. They’re also in daily talks with the U.S. Department of Education over whether the state’s emergency TNReady laws conflict with a federal law that requires student achievement-based accountability.

Haslam will do damage control this week after returning from an overseas economic development trip. He’s expected to beat the drum about the role of a state test as a measuring stick to ensure that children are learning and taxpayers get their money’s worth for the billions spent on schools.

McQueen offered an early glimpse at the messaging late last week. She said this year’s poor delivery of a computerized exam under testing company Questar does not mean that the exam itself is bad.

"We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

“We have an exceptional test,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday, adding that the fix needs to come with how testing is administered. She added that it would be a mistake to change course on the state’s education agenda.

“The three things that we have focused on — high standards, rigorous assessment, and greater accountability — have been the backbone of much of our success in Tennessee,” she said. “We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not.”

Tension with testing

Indeed, national test results have been encouraging. Tennessee’s ACT average finally hit a modest milestone last year, and scores on several national tests are up since 2011. Just months ago, the state was basking in the glow of a massive Stanford University analysis showing Tennessee’s academic gains have outpaced the rest of the South — and much of the nation.

But testing that exceeds federal requirements has taken its toll on school communities, partly because districts have introduced extra exams to make sure students and teachers are on target leading up to TNReady.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“I think we’ve gone dramatically overboard with testing,” said Dan Lawson, a superintendent in Tullahoma. “Everybody felt a very heavy hand on them when it came to this year’s assessment.”

That tension bubbled up last month during legislative hearings amid the online testing interruptions.

“What we have created, I’m afraid, is a culture of testing instead of a culture of teaching,” Rep. Sheila Butt told McQueen.

The Republican from Columbia went on to read a letter from one teacher: “I’m not sure this year if we’re actually wanting academic accountability,” the teacher wrote, “or if we’re merely testing our students’ resilience in the face of obstacles and our teachers’ patience with the new system.”

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs her chamber’s education committee, offered another viewpoint.

“I remember a retired teacher telling me one time that she just wanted to be left alone, close the door, and she would go into her classroom and teach. And I wanted to tell her that that’s how we got to be 46th in overall student achievement,” said the Somerville Republican, “because we did not know what was going on in that classroom.”

“We have got to know,” Gresham concluded. “We have got to be able to evaluate and know what to do going forward.”

Joshua Glazer, a professor and researcher at George Washington University, said it’s understandable that frustrations with TNReady could amplify concerns about testing in general. But he cautioned against any knee-jerk reaction that minimizes assessments.

“We haven’t gotten the testing and accountability thing right yet, for sure,” said Glazer, who has followed Tennessee education policy. “But that doesn’t mean we want to go back to the 1980s when everybody could do whatever they wanted and we saw massive inequality in opportunity as a result.”

For more on how Tennessee got here, check out why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.

appropriate instruction

Special education in tumult as Adams 14 faces resignations, parent complaints

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District, speaks to parents at a forum April 17, 2018. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Just weeks from the end of the school year, Ed Collins found out that his 7-year-old son was not getting all the instruction he was supposed to get to address his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Collins said the school in Adams 14 owed his son 18 days of instruction. Much of the time lost was due to suspensions that were contrary to his child’s special education plan, he said.

Likewise, Samantha Ochoa recently found out that her son, a freshman at Adams City High School, is failing all of his classes. Under a plan to address his learning disability, Ochoa said, the school owes him 650 hours of instruction.

The two parents’ stories are among many in the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City, which has had a tumultuous year with special education. A mass midyear exodus of top administrators and teachers has led to confusion at schools, a rotating crew of substitutes, gaps in services, and students not getting the education and support they need.

According to federal law, students who are identified with special needs must receive appropriate help so they can learn. Legally, schools must follow those students’ individualized education plans, although complaints don’t often go to court.

Javier Abrego, the superintendent of Adams 14, a district under a state plan for turnaround, and school principals refused to discuss the issues parents raise. To protect student privacy, school officials generally do not comment on the cases of individual students. But in a prepared statement, Abrego wrote that the district is “not aware of any IEP non-compliance concerns” – even though people have raised issues at school board meetings and during a community meeting earlier this month.

The silence of the district administration is a change for a district whose previous special education staff was dubbed “the dream team.”

“They were able to take a situation, whether it was brought to them by the parent or someone else and say, ‘let’s figure this out,’” said Paula Christina, a child and family advocate for ARC of Adams County, a nonprofit that helps families of special needs children. “You don’t always have that collaboration and skill set with all the districts.”

“It really saddens me to see how things have fallen apart,” Christina said. “Something is not working at the top level at the administration.”

Instead of responding to parents’ charges, district officials have highlighted efforts to teach students at some schools social and emotional skills. But one principal said that while the work is beneficial, it doesn’t help students with severe needs.

The staffing problems in the district have, as of April, included administrators. The district’s director of student services – who oversees special education – resigned, leaving for an assistant director job in Denver. On the next tier, three special education coordinators who help schools create and troubleshoot plans for students with special needs also resigned and will leave at the end of the school year.

Many special education teachers also have left, although officials would not provide numbers. Anecdotally, other administrators, teachers, and union officials say it has been a bad year.

According to a roster of special education teachers still working in late April, two elementary schools had just one teacher left, although the schools also have paraprofessionals.

Hanson Elementary School, where the district’s records show there are 50 students on special needs plans, has one teacher certified to teach special education. Rose Hill Elementary, which has 60 students with special needs plans — including some in a program for students with severe needs from across the district — also had just one teacher as of April, down from three at the start of the year.

That has led to a succession of substitutes filling in.

At Rose Hill, Collins said that his 7-year-old’s classroom teacher has helped his son a lot, but his assigned special education staffer is always changing, something that is particularly rough for his son.

“They’ve been using substitutes,” Collins said. “He doesn’t like change. I’m a single parent. His mom’s gone and his older sisters are with their mom. So he thinks that everybody that cares about him leaves him.”

Families say change is difficult for many children with special needs.

Because special education teachers are considered a hard-to-staff position across the country, many teachers and parents worry about filling so many positions by next school year.

Superintendent Abrego’s prepared statement notes the district is “exploring all options, including incentives to attract special education professionals to the district.” A spokesman also said the district will reconsider appropriate staffing levels once a new director of student services has been hired.

One change that has already been planned is to move the special needs program from Rose Hill to Central Elementary school next year in an effort to get more space and to pool resources of both schools special needs programs.

Apart from staffing, parents and teachers claim there are also problems in the district’s process for identifying students who have special needs, and then gaps in serving them.

Ochoa’s son at Adams City High School, for example, went through most of the school year with teachers unaware that he had a plan for his special needs and needed accommodations, she said.

“They kept assuring me everything was good,” Ochoa said. “That they were modifying his work. But they weren’t.”

The district recently offered Ochoa’s son a one-on-one tutor to help make up the instructional time, but it will likely go into the summer. Ochoa said her son is weary of the plan.

“He tells me, ‘Mom, I feel stupid, I just want to drop out,’” Ochoa said.

Other parents and teachers point to gaps in services for students with severe emotional or social needs.

Because of budget limitations, district officials say that they can only afford to have a districtwide program at one school for students with severe social or emotional needs. This year, that program is serving middle school students.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services, said there aren’t many students identified with severe emotional or social needs in elementary or high school, but for those that are, the special education teams at schools can determine how to serve that student in a regular classroom, or if absolutely necessary, students can be sent to get services out of the district.

Currently there are 25 Adams 14 students that the district is paying to receive services elsewhere. That’s down from 38 out-of-district placements last year.

But integrating those students into regular classrooms can be challenging. Barb McDowell, president of the teachers union in Adams 14, said that in those cases teachers need help from qualified special education staff. Without it, McDowell said teachers are also seeing more behavior issues among all students.

With the district’s turmoil, parents complain that their children’s needs are being overlooked. Shelly Hebel said her 14-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression, and a learning disability, could have used more mental health help specific to her social and emotional needs this year.

Instead, Hebel found out recently that Adams City High School wasn’t following her daughter’s special education plan. Among the requirements of the plan, Hebel said, teachers needed to allow the girl to leave classes early so she could walk across the campus before hallways are crowded. The girl’s emotional problems got so bad, she stopped going to classes.

Hebel said her oldest daughter had similar issues years ago and ended up dropping out of school, so she says this time she’s not taking chances. She is pulling her daughter out of school and will send her to the district’s alternative high school next year.

Meanwhile the district’s assistant director of student services, Cini, is trying to keep other projects moving forward, which she said could help improve services in the district.

“I know that intervention and prevention is our ticket out of constant crisis,” Cini said.

Union president McDowell said some teachers blame this year’s problems in part on cuts made in the current school year to the number of mental health professionals such as counselors and psychologists at schools.

“There was a lot of pushback on that, so next year every school will have a full-time mental health worker,” Cini said. “Everybody’s going to have that.”

In Adams 14, district officials say the responsibility of making sure a student’s plan is being followed belongs to each principal.

Annie Fahnestock, a special education teacher who resigned in January from Rose Hill, said the schools need more oversight.

“It was all left up to the coordinators and the director of special education,” Fahnestock said.

Christina said that she has seen changes that concern her, including instances where principals haven’t been as receptive to suggestions or the district’s ideas about inclusion of students in general education classrooms.

In November, for example, parents complained that the new school administration at Rose Hill was discriminating against students in the districtwide program for severe needs and making them feel unwelcome.

Her nonprofit group provided a training at the school, including for the principal and other staff, on how to talk about disability and how to be sensitive to students’ needs.

Teacher Fahnestock said the district’s special education coordinators and director came to her school often to share their concerns about special education programming with her principal.

“But in the end, it was more like it’s her building,” Fahnestock said. “So she gets final say.”

beyond high school

Report: Memphis students from poor families less likely to have access to advanced coursework

PHOTO: By Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images

While most high school students in Tennessee’s largest district have access to advanced courses to prepare them for college, most of those classes are concentrated in schools with more affluent families.

Of the 14 high schools in Shelby County Schools that offer more than 40 advanced classes, all but one have a lower percentage of students from poor families than the district.

Those schools educate slightly more than half of high school students in the Memphis district. In contrast, about a quarter of high school students are in schools with 20 or fewer advanced courses, according to a new district report.

District officials say those course offerings in the 2017-18 school year are closely correlated with the size of the school: The larger the student population, the more likely the school is to offer advanced courses. The concentration of schools with more affluent students was not examined in the report.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

The findings are scheduled to be presented at next week’s school board meeting as part of the district’s monthly check-in on various statistics on teaching and student learning.

Taking advanced classes in high school introduces students to college-level coursework and in many cases allows them to skip some college classes — saving students thousands of dollars. And because students from low-income families, who make up about 59 percent of Shelby County Schools, lag behind their more affluent peers in college enrollment, they are encouraged to take more advanced courses.

Advanced courses include programs such as such as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate, and honors courses.

Jessica Lotz, the district’s director of performance management who will present the report, said this year’s numbers are better than last year. Since her last report on the topic, three schools now offer advanced courses for the first time.

Staffing is the biggest barrier to offering more advanced courses, she said. So, additional teacher trainings are planned for the summer.

And district plans are underway to increase the number of students taking those courses. The district is also pursuing federal funds to help students from low-income families pay for dual enrollment courses, and also encouraging area colleges to lower the number of students needed to take a class so that smaller schools can participate.

The number of students taking advanced courses is part of the state Department of Education measure of a being ready for college, or a “ready graduate,” under its new accountability plan.

Scroll down to the bottom of this story for a full chart on the number of advanced courses by high school.

Here are the 14 schools with 40 or more advanced courses each:

  • White Station High (143 advanced courses)
  • Central High (116)
  • Middle College High (98)
  • Germantown High (95)
  • Cordova High (79)
  • Overton High (75)
  • Ridgeway High (74)
  • Bolton High (56)
  • Southwind High (55)
  • Whitehaven High (52)
  • Hollis F. Price Middle College High (46)
  • Kingsbury High (45)
  • Memphis Virtual School (43)
  • East High (42)

Note: The number of courses offered refers to unique advanced courses that are available at a given school, not the total number of times/sections the same course is offered for different groups of students.

Four high schools did not offer any advanced courses: Legacy Leadership Academy, a charter school; The Excel Center, an adult learning school; Newcomer International Center, a new high school program for immigrant students; and Northwest Prep Academy, an alternative school.

Of the advanced courses, International Baccalaureate, a high-profile certification program for high school students worldwide, was the least common. Just three more affluent high schools — Ridgeway, Germantown, and Bolton — offered those courses, according to the district’s data.

Dual enrollment, another category of advanced courses, are taught in partnership with an area college and count toward a postsecondary degree. Though the share of Shelby County Schools students taking dual enrollment courses has increased from about 5 to 9 percent since 2014, the percentage slightly decreased this year compared to last school year.

Most of the high schools, offer a total of 183 dual enrollment courses. But only four of the 16 charter schools in the report offered those classes.

About half of high schools in the district offer a total of 194 Advanced Placement courses, which culminate in a test at the end of the year that can count toward college credit if students score well enough. Most of those classes are concentrated in seven more affluent schools.

Those schools are:

  • White Station High (39 AP courses)
  • Central High (20)
  • Cordova High (15)
  • Kingsbury High (13)
  • Overton High (13)
  • Whitehaven High (11)
  • Southwind High (10)

Honors courses, which count toward an advanced high school diploma but do not count for college credit, were the most common with just over 1,000 across the district. Only seven schools, which were either charter schools or alternative schools, did not offer any honors courses.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to increase the percentage of students prepared for college by 2025. Currently, about 90 percent of students who graduate from the district would be required to take remedial classes in college because of low ACT scores, according to state data. That’s usually a sign that their high school did not adequately prepare them for college classes.

A state report released last fall examining where students go after high school showed that 56 percent of Shelby County Schools’ graduating class of 2016 went on to enroll in a four-year college or university, community college, or technical college. That’s compared to 63 percent of students statewide.

One of the report’s recommendations to boost that number was to improve partnerships with universities and increase the number of advanced course offerings — a recommendation Lotz emphasized Tuesday.

Shelby County Schools partners with the following universities and colleges for dual enrollment courses: Bethel University, Christian Brothers University, LeMoyne Owen College, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, University of Memphis, and William Moore College of Technology (Moore Tech)

Below you can find the advanced course offerings at each district-run and charter school in Shelby County Schools. Below that you can view the district’s full report.