change of plans

With A-F grades off the table, Tennessee gets creative about rating its schools under federal law

PHOTO: Getty Images/danchooalex

Tennessee’s plan to start grading its schools this year has taken a big detour.

Days of online testing problems this spring forced officials to toss out a new A-F grading system, under development for more than a year as part of Tennessee’s sweeping plan to usher in a new era of school quality.

Now the state Education Department has come up with a different approach to help parents and communities understand how their schools performed in 2017-18.

The state will rate each school on a scale of 0-4 on six different performance indicators. And in a major concession to local district leaders, schools won’t receive a single overall grade or rating as initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the change complies with a new state law ordering that this year’s TNReady scores “shall not be used to assign a letter grade to a school” — a nod to concerns that the test results may be unreliable. She believes it also complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, the 2015 federal law that requires every state to adopt a rating system that distinguishes each of its schools in a meaningful way.   

McQueen’s approach is drawing mostly praise from education leaders and groups, even as some wonder whether a numeric system will provide the simplicity and clarity of one that grades schools on an A-F scale.

“I give the department credit for going much further than I thought they could or would based on the TNReady law. They were very creative and ambitious,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, which seeks to improve education quality for students of color.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says the numeric system “is not ideal, but it does allow for some accountability and fulfills our requirement” under ESSA.

Federal officials are expected to approve the numeric rating concept and a few other revisions on Tennessee’s updated ESSA plan shared last month with the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen recently told the task force advising her on testing matters that the numeric system will still provide useful information about how schools are doing in areas such as chronic absenteeism; out-of-school suspensions; student readiness for college, career and the military; and a variety of student achievement and growth data. The indicators are meant to give families a fuller picture of school performance than test scores alone.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is greeted by students and staff at Springdale Memphis Magnet Elementary School during a 2015 svisit.

The commissioner also believes the ratings will follow the intent of the emergency TNReady laws, which shield schools from any “adverse action” from this year’s scores.

The ratings will be accessible online by December. For now, state officials are calling the new platform a “dashboard,” and school superintendents got an early peek last week at its design.

The dashboard will be separate from Tennessee’s existing State Report Card, another online tool showing annual data such as demographics, per-pupil funding, and student achievement by school and district.

“The current report card has dozens of data points, but we know it may not be a user-friendly tool for every parent to understand how a school is doing” said state spokeswoman Sara Gast.

“The dashboard will condense the number of data points to highlight what we think are some of the key indicators of success, and provide some context about what those scores mean,” she said.

But whether using the 0-4 system will be as easy to understand as A-F grades is a concern.

State lawmakers passed a 2016 law requiring an A-F system for schools beginning this year, and the Education Department adopted that approach as part of Tennessee’s ESSA plan. The idea was to provide parents with an easy-to-use tool to understand how their child’s school is performing. After all, that’s what their children get on their report cards.

For several years, the plan to give each school an overall grade — in addition to grades for each performance indicator — has been a point of contention for local education leaders. The state superintendents organization has fought the idea at every turn and was pushing legislation this year to roll it back before this year’s online TNReady problems made the issue moot.

“We’ve never opposed getting grades for individual areas,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “But many superintendents and school boards felt very passionately that giving schools a single letter grade was not the right approach to give parents the best and most accurate information.”

"I believe (the changes) get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish."Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville

Gresham, who sponsored the A-F bill that became state law, is equally passionate about the importance of providing parents with one summative grade for their school. She’s also concerned that the numeric system won’t pack the same punch as letter grades.

“I believe that both choices get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish,” Gresham told Chalkbeat. “The parents and our communities are our audience, not school administrators.”

Pupo-Walker would rather have overall grades too. But, for now, she’s mostly concerned about whether the dashboard will help parents and communities have robust conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools.

“The onus is on the state to present the information in a way that parents and schools and community members can understand it,” she said, “and then for the information to be actionable.”

In partnership with the state, the coalition is sponsoring five regional meetings beginning June 26 in Nashville to discuss updates to Tennessee’s ESSA plan, including the new rating system. You can find the details here.

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit special education advocate tries to help parents

PHOTO: Tairia Bridges
Dorothea Nicholson is a education advocate for children with special needs and their parents

When Dorothea Nicholson first learned her oldest daughter had special needs, she recalls crying all the time.

Her daughter, now 17, was almost 5 years old then, and had so many health issues – including being unable to hear, walk, talk, or hold food down – doctors told Nicholson there was nothing they could do, and that she should place her daughter in center-based treatment. Nicholson remembers going to 15 doctors appointments in one week and feeling alone.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” the Detroiter said. “I was left in the dark, lost.”

Five years later, Nicholson gave birth to another daughter. She had attention deficit disorder with impulsivity, mood disorder, asthma and allergies to “almost everything.”

But by then, Nicholson said she had a better idea of what steps to take to advocate for her after attending support groups and getting other help.

Now, the educational advocate has taken up a mantle of helping other parents of children with special needs. She understands these parents deal with a variety of issues in their personal lives while trying to figure out what to do to support their children.

Nicholson recently shared the story of how she helps parents of children with special needs at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

Are Children Learning

Memphis schools in most need of growth see gains, but vast majority of students still not on grade level

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Melody Smith discusses how students at A.B. Hill Elementary grew significantly in test scores.

Three years after one elementary school joined Shelby County Schools’ flagship school improvement program, Principal Melody Smith says growth is proof their efforts are working.

“We came together we battled, we cried, we fought tooth and nail, but in the end we kept our students in the center,” Smith told teachers as they reviewed the results a week before school began.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teachers at A.B. Hill Elementary discuss what makes an ideal school.

A.B. Hill Elementary School, which is part of the Innovation Zone, went from less than 5 percent of students reading on grade level last year to 15 percent in state test scores released Thursday. That jump earned the South Memphis school the state’s highest ranking in growth, but the scores also mean about 85 percent of students still don’t meet state requirements.

The iZone’s two dozen schools have been heralded for how much students have grown since 2012, especially when compared to the state-run Achievement School District, which heavily relies on private charter organizations to boost test scores, and scored the lowest in student growth.

But the challenge is far from over, and school leaders are looking for ways to improve faster.

State leaders generally look at three years of data before determining if academic strategies are working. And in the past three years, the state’s switch to online testing has been tumultuous, which has caused some district leaders and state lawmakers to question the results. But on national tests, Tennessee was held up as a model for student growth compared to surrounding states in a recent Stanford University study — even while the state is still in the bottom half of test scores nationwide.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

Only three schools in the iZone — Westhaven Elementary, Cherokee Elementary, and Ford Road Elementary — have more than 20 percent of students reading on grade level. By comparison, 16 schools surpassed that in science, five in math, and four in social studies.

“There was a lot of movement in our elementary schools,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for schools performing poorly on state tests. But “we’re going to need a laser light focus on our high schools and our middle schools.”

The district created the iZone to boost student achievement in schools performing the worst in the state, all of which are in impoverished neighborhoods. The state Legislature allowed principals to have much more autonomy on which certified teachers they could hire, pumped about $600,000 per school for teacher pay incentives, and added more resources to combat the effects of poverty in the classroom, such as clothes and food closets.

Now, entering its seventh year, the iZone is still outshining the state-run district, and students are still showing more growth compared to their peers across the state who also performed poorly last year. Nine schools in the iZone got the state’s highest ranking for growth, compared to just five last year when the state switched to a new test. (Scroll to the bottom of this story to compare test scores and growth for iZone schools.)

Of the 23 schools in the iZone last year, seven of them were high schools. None of the high schools had more than a third of students on grade level or above in any subject. Four of them — Raleigh Egypt, Melrose, Mitchell, and Hamilton — saw significant growth in at least one subject. Last year was Raleigh Egypt’s first year in the iZone under Shari Meeks, who previously was principal at Oakhaven Middle School.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Clothes closet at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis.

Burt said “the first big thing” that will be done to combat low reading scores in middle and high schools will be to strengthen curriculum. Adding curriculum for younger students played a part in boosting test scores that contributed to growth, leaders said.

Also, new reading specialists will teach a separate class for students who are the furthest behind on top of their normal English class. Before, teachers were responsible for catching up those students, or specialists would take them out of class to work on reading skills.

At the district level, Burt said science, social studies, math, and English advisors will be working more directly with teachers. And principal coaches will have more say in how and where those advisors concentrate their efforts.

Inside the school, Smith, the principal at A.B. Hill Elementary, said having teachers practice more difficult lessons in front of each other helped spur more ideas on how to make the curriculum work for their students.

Teachers said collaboration with others was key to figuring out the best way to improve test scores there. It was common for teachers to invite each other to sit in on lessons and give feedback.

“We would debrief with each other all the time,” said Brenda Pollard, who taught fourth-grade English and social studies. Now she says the foundation has been laid for higher achievement.

“It can be done,” she said. “We’re living proof it can be done.”

Below is a table of how iZone schools fared on state tests. Fields labeled “4.9” were hidden in state data, but are likely below 5 percent.