Are Children Learning

Jeffco board reverses course on early-childhood assessment

The conservative majority of Jeffco Public Schools’ board of education on Thursday revised a previous decision to halt the district’s use of an early childhood education assessment linked to millions of dollars in preschool funding.

But it wasn’t a full retreat.

Jeffco receives more than $5 million from the Colorado Preschool Program to cover tuition for the suburb’s most at-risk students. The money is conditioned, in part, on the district assessing toddlers and providing that data to the state to measure the effectiveness of the program. The district is also required, under federal law governing free preschool children with disabilities, to assess their students.

The assessment under contention in Jeffco, TS GOLD, is one of two approved assessments that districts may use to send the state the information it requests. It requires preschool teachers to assess more than 30 different indicators of education readiness, capture data through pictures, video and work samples, and provide parents with an individualized learning plan for their students.

Critics fear the assessment is taking too much time from classroom instruction and have raised concerns over student privacy policies. Additionally, they argue that the mandate of assessing children — at any level — for state and federal purposes irks those who believe that decision is best left to local school boards and school leaders.

At its Dec. 12 meeting, the board halted the use of TS GOLD at the preschool level, putting in jeopardy the preschool funding. The December decision also ended the phasing-in of the assessment in kindergarten classrooms. (By the fall of 2015, all Colorado kindergarten classrooms will be required to use either TS GOLD or another assessment pending state approval.)

But after last night’s 3-2 vote, the district will continue to narrowly use the assessment as mandated. And the free preschool program for about 1,500 toddlers is safe. The board’s action last night did not reinstate the use of the program in kindergarten. It also required the district tp seek a waiver from the assessment.

“We’re simply dealing with a compliance concern that was raised,” said board president Ken Witt after the vote. “We’re going to pursue a waiver with the state that would imply, ‘I do not want to do this, but [we] feel we’re required to at this time.’”

The board’s minority — Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman — opposed both the original decision to end the use of TS GOLD and Thursday’s decision to reinstate it on a limited basis.

“The bottom line,” Dahlkemper said, “[is] no strings attached.”

She fears the board’s action is a slippery policy slope.

“The devil is in the details,” she said. “Once you start going down the road of a waiver, it raises lots of red flags for me.”

Jefferson County parents were equally divided.

“Some families are worried about privacy,” said Darcy Wood, who attended the meeting flanked by a group of parents who support the district’s use of TS GOLD. “We respect their right to opt out of assessments as they see fit. But we’re in. We want our children’s learning, center stage. We want it accounted for — demonstrated, celebrated and used to move students forward.”

Wood said she believes the results of the assessments make classroom time more custom and informed.

“At another preschool, our children’s teachers feel it helps them plan activities and tells where children are developmentally,” she said. “They feel the work is worth the information they get fro their children.”

But Sunny Flynn, and another group of parents, fear data collection like TS GOLD could have dangerous repercussions.

“TS GOLD has a de facto monopoly,” Flynn said. “They’re creating a very powerful database. And before we move forward, our privacy policies need to catch up.”

Flynn was also concerned about classroom time being taken away while teachers “run around with an iPad” trying to collect a myriad of data.

“Our teachers need to be nurturing and teaching our kids,” she said. “Our children are not guinea pigs.”

Both sides of the argument did agree on one thing: regardless of the board’s decision, lawsuits are likely to follow.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.

Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores

The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.