Making the grade

New data show more than half of NYC teachers judged, in part, by test scores they don’t directly affect

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Just over half of New York City teachers were evaluated in the 2015–16 school year, in part, by tests in subjects or of students they didn’t teach, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request.

At 53 percent of city teachers, it’s significant number, but substantially lower than in previous years, possibly thanks to a moratorium placed on using state tests, instituted mid-year.

That figure also highlights a key tension in evaluating all teachers by student achievement, even teachers who work with young students or in subjects like physical education. Being judged by other teachers’ students or subjects has long annoyed some educators and relieved others, who otherwise might have had to administer additional tests.

Supporters say evaluating teachers by group measures — often school-wide scores on standardized tests — helps create a sense of shared mission in a school. But the approach could also push teachers away from working in struggling schools.

“The key point around school-wide measures is that this could serve as a strong disincentive for these teachers in non-tested grades and subjects to stay in lower-performing schools,” said Matthew Steinberg at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied teacher evaluation systems.

Will Mantell, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, defended the district’s approach.

“Selecting school-wide [or] grade-wide … measures may better measure educators’ practice and support professional development,” he said. “For example, it makes sense for a social studies teacher who emphasizes writing in her classroom to be evaluated partially on an assessment of students’ ELA skills.”

New York’s evaluation system has gone through a number of substantial changes since it was first codified in state law in 2012, part of a nationwide push to connect teacher performance to student test scores, spurred by federal incentives.

Student assessments have comprised anywhere from 40 percent of the evaluation to essentially 50 percent, under a matrix system pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015. Most recently, New York stopped using grades 3-8 English and math state tests as part of the system, but teachers must continue to be judged based on some assessment.

States across the country have struggled to evaluate teachers in traditionally non-tested grades and subjects. New York City has created a number of exams — known as performance assessments — in non-tested areas and given schools significant flexibility in which measures are used to judge their teachers.

In the 2015-16 school year, 53 percent of teachers were evaluated by a group metric, meaning one not focused on their subject or students. In the two previous years, the number was much higher — around 85 percent. It’s not clear why there was a substantial drop, but a spokesperson for the city’s education department notes that 2015-16 was an “outlier” due to the moratorium on state tests, instituted mid-year.

In all three years, most teachers were also evaluated by at least one individualized measure targeted to teachers’ grade, subject and students.

Data for the most recent school year are not yet available.

It’s also not clear what percentage of a teacher’s rating was based on group measures, and Mantell said this “varies from teacher to teacher.”

The United Federation of Teachers has pushed to give schools more individual options, including the use of more “authentic” assessments, not based on multiple choice questions.

“Right now, we don’t have enough options, which is why our most recent agreement with the DOE seeks to build more authentic assessments for additional grades and subjects,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the UFT in a statement.

Group measures offer an alternative to creating exams for each teacher in every grade and subject, which can lead to a proliferation of new tests, though in New York City teachers have often been judged by both group and individual metrics.

The challenge of evaluating teachers in traditionally untested areas is not unique to New York, and a number of states have embraced group or school-wide approaches. An analysis of 32 states, conducted by Steinberg, found that the average teacher in a non-tested grade or subject had about 7 percent of his or her evaluation based on school-wide achievement measures, though this averaged together substantial variation from place to place. Teachers in Tennessee and Florida have sued (unsuccessfully), arguing that it is unfair to evaluate them based on students they didn’t teach.

A more popular option, used in some districts in New York, has been student-learning objectives, in which teachers set goals for students often based on classroom exams. This approach has been praised for helping teachers set specific goals, but criticized as burdensome and easy to manipulate.

Research has found that using school-wide measures of performance tends to bring teachers closer to average performance. An analysis by the Brookings Institution showed that these group measures pulled down ratings of teachers with higher individual ratings at low-performing schools.

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.