Making the grade

Tennessee schools soon will receive letter grades. But will poverty be considered?

Tennessee is developing a new system to evaluate its schools based on the same A-F grading scale its students receive. But not everyone agrees on what should constitute an A.

This week, officials with the State Department of Education looked closely at grading models as they seek to comply with both a new state law that requires each school be assigned a letter grade and a new federal law that focuses on all aspects of school accountability.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has strong feelings about what shouldn’t be a factor: poverty.

“Poverty … shouldn’t be the reason you don’t even have an opportunity to get an A,” she told the State Board of Education on Thursday.

As such, state officials are proposing two avenues for schools to get an A on achievement: 1) high test scores, which would tend to favor schools with fewer poor students and more resources, and 2) substantial test score growth, which would provide a pathway for schools that are more diverse.

But others think that opening up the top grade to schools that aren’t necessarily top performers would undermine the grading system.

Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney says growth is important, but that achievement scores are more important. He represents one of the state’s highest-performing and wealthiest districts and participated Thursday night in a town hall meeting in Nashville to discuss Tennessee’s accountability plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Earlier Thursday, Wendy Tucker, a State Board of Education member representing part of Nashville and Williamson County, expressed similar concerns. She said that including growth in a grade would be misleading, and not in the spirit of the state law.

“That statute was intended for parents to be able to look at a school and see what level of education they’re getting,” said Tucker, who is also co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a nonprofit organization focused on Nashville’s public schools. “I think growth is great. I just don’t think it’s an A.”

But McQueen and her team defended the two-pronged model. Test scores don’t paint the full picture of school quality, said Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns. “Just because you walk into a school that has a lot of high-achieving students does not mean there’s a culture of excellence there,” Towns said.

McQueen added that the state’s education messaging as a whole has been around growth, rather than raw achievement. Education leaders often tout Tennessee as “the fastest improving in the nation” as the state’s scores on national tests have moved from the bottom to the middle.

“Growth is the model we have used, and it has really worked for Tennessee,” McQueen said. “We believe that this is a fair, just model that we’ll continue to get feedback on.”

Under the state’s ESSA plan, one group of schools could not make an A. Schools that are dubbed “priority schools” — those ranking academically in the bottom 5 percent that also have low growth scores for two consecutive years — would receive automatic Fs.

While test scores or growth would be the driving factor in a school’s grade under the state’s proposed plan, schools also would be evaluated on chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, access to college credit courses, and the proficiency rates of  English language learners.

ESSA requires for the first time that states give their schools “summative” ratings. Those ratings don’t have to be A to F letter grades, but Tennessee’s legislature passed a law last year requiring schools be assigned a letter grade. The legislation was promoted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and has been adopted in several other states.

One, Virginia, already has repealed school letter grades, in part because ‘F’ schools had difficulty recruiting teachers. Other critics charge that letter grades lack nuance and oversimplify the link between poverty and low test scores, potentially stigmatizing low-performing schools that receive Fs, as well as students who attend those schools.

forward and back

Four takeaways from a new report on the status of Colorado’s children

Children on floor with building blocks. (Image Source | Getty Images)

Teen pregnancies are way down in Colorado. Teen suicides are alarmingly high. More of the state’s kids are attending full-day kindergarten than ever before, but half of them start school without the skills they need.

These are a few of the findings from the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report released today by the advocacy group Colorado Children’s Campaign. While the report always includes a trove of state and county-level data about child well-being, this year’s version — the 25th anniversary edition — touches timely topics ranging from gun control to the state’s school funding formula.

Here are four takeaways from the 147-page report. Read it in full here.

Half of Colorado kids aren’t ready for kindergarten
KIDS COUNT highlights the results of a new state report that looks at how prepared Colorado kids are for kindergarten. The report, mandated by an ambitious 2008 school reform law and released for the first time this year, reveals that just under half of the state’s kindergarteners meet benchmarks in all six areas of kindergarten readiness, which include everything from basic math knowledge to language comprehension and motor development. About a quarter of kindergarteners meet three or fewer benchmarks. (Here’s a look at the debate over the assessments used to gather kindergarten readiness data and one county’s effort to clarify what students need to know when they start kindergarten.)

The KIDS COUNT report also spotlights racial and ethnic disparities in kindergarten readiness, revealing, for example, that 55 percent of Hispanic kindergarteners met at least five of six benchmarks compared to 73 percent of non-Hispanic kindergarteners. While the authors of the KIDS COUNT report laud the new baseline data, they note one major shortcoming: The state report doesn’t pinpoint the specific areas where kids most often fall short, limiting the public’s ability to identify trouble spots.

School funding lags and full-day kindergarten explodes
Picking up on Colorado’s perennial school funding squeeze and recent efforts to get a statewide education tax measure on the ballot, KIDS COUNT examines the state school funding landscape. It shows that in 1995, Colorado spent $402 less than the national per-pupil average with adjustments for regional cost differences. By 2014, that number had ballooned to nearly $2,700 less per student.

Even as the state’s school funding has lagged, there’s been impressive growth in its full-day kindergarten population. This year, nearly 80 percent of kindergarteners are enrolled in full-day programs, compared to 14 percent in 2001-02. Still, the state only pays part of that cost, leaving districts to make up the rest through other government funding or parent tuition dollars.

While some lawmakers routinely seek (and fail to get) full state funding for full-day kindergarten, the coming gubernatorial election could mix things up this year. At least one candidate wants to offer free full-day kindergarten to all Colorado kids.

Colorado’s youth suicide rate is alarming —  and guns figure into the equation
At a time when school shootings are fueling a push for gun control legislation in some quarters, KIDS COUNT’s authors note the prominent role that guns play in youth suicides, especially for boys. About half of males 10 to 19 who die by suicide use firearms. (In comparison, only about 20 percent of suicide deaths in girls involve firearms.)

Besides noting that suicide risk is lowest for youth who live in homes without firearms, the report says, “Evidence suggests that laws aimed at preventing children and youth from accessing firearms reduce firearm suicides among this age group.”

KIDS COUNT also raises concern about Colorado’s high youth suicide rate, which came up in the state legislature earlier this year after a high-profile suicide of a 10-year-old Aurora girl. In 2016, there were 18 suicides for every 100,000 people aged 15 to 19 in the state — higher than in all but two of the last 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in two counties: El Paso and Mesa, where teen suicide rates were 29 per 100,000 in 2016.

Teen pregnancy goal met, with a caveat
One success story highlighted in this year’s KIDS COUNT report is the sharp decline in Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate over the last two-and-a-half decades. Given the likelihood that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, the decrease is good news educationally and otherwise.

In 1991, there were 56 births per 1,000 Colorado teens. In 2016, it was down to 18 — well below the goal of 25 cited in the 1991 edition of KIDS COUNT. (The teen abortion rate has also dropped substantially in the last decade.) Despite major decreases in teen pregnancy for every racial and ethnic group, Colorado’s Hispanic teens still fall short of the 1991 goal with 30 pregnancies per 1,000 young women.

Even with huge strides across the state and nation in reducing teen pregnancy, recent cuts to a federal pregnancy prevention grant don’t bode well. One victim was the nonprofit Colorado Youth Matter, which focused on teen pregnancy prevention and sexual health. The organization, which got most of its funding from the federal grant, closed its doors at the end of December.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”