Two full days

State Board agenda packed with hot-button issues

It seems that every contentious education issue of the day has a spot on the State Board of Education’s agenda for the two-day meeting that starts Wednesday.

The seven-member board is known for full agendas at its monthly sessions. But the February meeting is especially crowded, including such issues as testing, the state’s waiver from NCLB requirements, opting out of the Common Core State Standards, future state graduation guidelines, and parents’ rights to opt out of testing. There’s even a briefing on math standards, which have been a sore point for some Common Core critics.

Most of the issues are labeled as “information items,” meaning the board will be briefed and likely have a discussion but won’t take any action.

But the two new members who joined the board last month have added an element of unpredictability to the group’s deliberations, heightening interest in what individual members have to say on key issues.

The new board produced a surprise at its Jan. 8 meeting when it voted 4-3 for a resolution instructing education Commissioner Robert Hammond to grant waivers to districts that requested exemptions from the first part of CMAS/PARCC language arts and math tests, due to be given starting next month.

The motion was made by new GOP member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and supported by two other Republicans plus Democrat Valentina Flores of Denver, the other new member (see story).

Since then 18 districts, including Douglas and Jefferson counties, have applied for waivers. But more important, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has issued a formal opinion concluding that neither the board nor the Department of Education have legal authority to grant such waivers.

Deciding what to do about the waiver applications is on the agenda for Wednesday morning. In light of the attorney general’s opinion, the department is recommending the requests be denied.

“I don’t have a lot of answers about how it’s going to go,”said board chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction.. “What the response will be from individual board members is unknown.”

The rest of the agenda

Here’s a look at the other issues the board will be talking about this week.

More testing – Significant numbers of seniors in some districts boycotted science and math tests last fall, raising concerns about opting out during the main testing season this spring. Under federal and state requirements districts face reductions in accreditation ratings if fewer than 95 percent of students are tested. The board will be briefed on that issue Thursday (see the slide show members will view).

Proposed resolutions on parents’ rights to withdraw from testing and in support of teaching social studies (testing isn’t mentioned) will be presented. Votes, if any, won’t come until March.

Common Core withdrawal – A majority of the board supports pulling out of the Common Core standards. But, like testing waivers, that may be easier talked about than accomplished. On Thursday the board will be briefed on the issue. An informal opinion from one member of the attorney general’s staff outlines the procedure, and the document basically concludes it can’t be done without legislative action.

NCLB waiver – Colorado currently has a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that gives it flexibility in rating districts and schools and in use of federal funds for the most struggling schools. That waiver needs to be renewed, and the state has to file its paperwork by March 31. The board will get an update Wednesday; see this document for details.

Graduation guidelines – Since 2008 the state has been working on high school graduation guidelines, a system that won’t go into effect until 2017-18. (The state can’t impose graduation requirements because the Colorado constitution gives local school boards final control of instruction.) A recent story in The Denver Post raised the issue of possibly watering down the proposed guidelines, so the issue has taken a higher profile. The board will have a study session on the guidelines Thursday, using this document.

New math – The board will have a “learning session” Wednesday on Colorado’s math standards, with CDE staff trying to explain how and why the standards seek to teach kids how to both get the right answers and also understand why those answers are correct. (Here’s the staff presentation.)

On top of all these issues, the board has the usual long list of other business, including a charter school appeal, rule-making hearings, and various procedural matters – plus time for public comment. Over the last year public comment sessions have been a lively forum, primarily for critics of testing and Common Core.

If board members were paid – and they’re not – they’d earn their money this week.

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.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

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.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly dip — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores were mostly flat or dipped this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance declined in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered — in the midst of testing — that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.