testing 1-2-3

City shows gains in SAT and AP scores

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

SAT and AP exam scores increased throughout the city in 2015, an improvement that shows steady progress toward the city’s college readiness goals at a time when scores are declining nationwide.

SAT math and writing scores increased by three points each, while critical reading improved by four points. The city’s average SAT scores were 466 in math, 444 in reading and 439 in writing. The total number of students passing at least one Advanced Placement exam also increased by 5.9 percentage points.

Nationally, SAT scores dropped by eight points last year. In New York State, average test scores fell in math and writing, while staying the same in critical reading.

The city’s improved test scores come even as more students took both exams. In 2015, 728 more seniors took the SAT than in 2014 and 3,163 more students took at least one AP exam than in 2014, reflecting the city’s aggressive push to expand AP enrollment.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña heralded the test scores as a positive sign, in line with the priorities laid out by Mayor Bill de Blasio in a speech last month. De Blasio’s plan includes expanding access to AP classes, providing algebra for all students in 8th grade and arranging more college visits.

“I’m very encouraged to see more New York City students taking these exams and meeting the high bar that they set,” Fariña said in a statement. I look forward to building on these gains as we work to make college access and success a reality for all our students.”

Yet, the mayor still has a long way to go before he meets his goal of two-thirds college-readiness for all students. The College Board, the company that owns the SAT, defines college-readiness as scoring a 1550 on all three sections combined, and says students who earn that score have a 65 percent chance of achieving at least a B- average during their first year of college.

The average combined SAT score in New York is 1349, well below the benchmark for college readiness set by the College Board.

The mayor’s plan also calls for all high schools to have access to a full slate of five AP courses. A record 42,481 students took at least one AP exam this year, out of 144,567 total juniors and seniors.

The new scores suggest that New York City students are better positioned than ever to get into college,

“When you can get the large urban environments moving as a whole to increase the admissions enhancement strategies, that’s very, very promising,” said Gregory Wolniak, the director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes at New York University.

The difference between how black and Hispanic students scored compared to white students remained large, suggesting that the achievement gap remains a problem despite gains across all ethnicities. It is also widening, as scores increased more for white students than for black and Hispanic students. However, participation in the AP exams showed the largest gains among black and Hispanic students.

City Council member Inez Barron said she hopes the mayor’s initiatives will help increase both AP and SAT scores by wider margins in the future.

“He’s just a year and a half into this so I think that that’s a good beginning,” Barron said.

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.