All in the family

TNReady’s new testing company also owns the old one

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Stephen Lazer (far right), who formerly worked for Educational Testing Service and is now the CEO of Questar, appears before a Tennessee legislative hearing last fall with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to discuss scoring problems with the state's 2017 TNReady exam under Questar. ETS owns Questar and is now stepping in to oversee TNReady's design, while Questar will continue to administer the exam this fall.

Tennessee’s decision to bring aboard a second testing group to work through headaches with its problem-plagued assessment keeps the job within the same family.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Monday that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over design work for TNReady to allow Questar, the exam’s current overseer, to focus on administering the test.

While McQueen described ETS as a “different vendor,” the group actually owns Questar.

The New Jersey-based nonprofit organization purchased Minnesota-based Questar in 2017 for $127.5 million to serve as its for-profit arm. Questar CEO Stephen Lazer came from ETS, where he was senior vice president over student and teacher assessments.

ETS is a big player in the testing world. The group designs and administers more than 50 million tests per year in 180 countries, and its assessments include the Nation’s Report Card given through the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.

McQueen said ETS has a good track record in Tennessee for creating its social studies and science tests, as well as its teacher certification exams. She said the state has received no complaints about testing directions developed by ETS, while it’s received numerous complaints about directions developed by Questar for TNReady math and language arts assessments.

“They are sophisticated in their content development,” McQueen said of ETS, noting that the group also has a larger staff and management structure than Questar.

State spokeswoman Sara Gast said Tuesday the testing groups “had no relationship at all” when the state Department of Education entered into its first contracts with ETS in 2015 and then with Questar to take over TNReady in 2016.

“ETS acquired Questar last year, but Questar has remained a separate legal entity, and we have two separate contracts and they are two separate companies,” Gast said.

The state plans to amend its contract with ETS to add TNReady design work and is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years. The state fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. in 2016 after TNReady’s failed online rollout prompted McQueen to cancel most TNReady exams that year.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam and his education chief, Candice McQueen, speak with reporters Monday about how Tennessee will handle standardized test results this year because of technical problems administering the exams by computer.

McQueen said this week that Questar fell short in responding to testing problems this spring. And in an interview last week with Chalkbeat, she said several days of outages for the computerized test appear to have stemmed from decisions made by Questar employees who did not consult with the state.

One was caused by an overnight software upgrade in Minnesota that hampered logins for Tennessee high school students on April 25. The other involved a computerized text-to-speech feature for students needing audible instructions. Questar disabled the feature after determining it was preventing students statewide from logging in and submitting their exams on April 30.

McQueen said the state is reviewing the second matter.

We have a belief that Questar potentially made a change from what they did with text-to-speech in the fall to what we experienced in the spring. And that was … not an approved change from the department,” she said. “Our contract is very clear that if any change is made, it has to be approved through the department.”

Questar’s chief operating officer, Brad Baumgartner, did not immediately respond to calls Tuesday seeking comment.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.