deja vu

Tennessee braces for TNReady testing delays — again — as state blames testing vendor — again

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

For the third time this year, Tennessee’s new standardized assessment has hit a road bump, likely causing further delays in testing students in grades 3-8.

As of Thursday, all districts across the state had received testing materials for high school but had yet to receive materials for testing younger grades for the second part of TNReady, according to the State Department of Education.

State officials blamed shipping delays by testing vendor Measurement Inc. and could offer no indication of when the tests will arrive.

The testing window for TNReady Part II begins on Monday and continues through May 10, though grades 3-8 originally were supposed to finish testing by May 6.

In an email sent to districts on Wednesday, state officials placed the blame squarely on North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.:

…(Measurement Inc.) assured us that all Part II testing materials would arrive in districts by April 22. Furthermore, this date was referenced as “worst case” by MI. Last Wednesday, on April 13, MI notified that us they would not meet this timeline for delivery of all grades 3-8 materials. Since then, we have repeatedly requested additional specifics on the estimated date of arrival for all remaining materials.

The latest delay marks the third large-scale challenge to administering Tennessee’s new assessment in as many months. The test was first delayed on Feb. 8  after its online launch failed, prompting state officials to instruct districts to revert to paper-based tests. In late February and March, “printing capacity issues” caused later-than-expected deliveries of paper testing materials, forcing some districts to reschedule TNReady’s Part I testing.

In the email, state officials said they “are extremely frustrated” that they can’t provide specific delivery timelines, and are giving districts extra time to administer tests to students in grades 3-8.

“… Districts may modify their testing schedules as needed, without any prior approval or notice to the (state),” the email said.

The latest delays mean that students in some counties will be taking TNReady instead of doing other activities such as field trips scheduled for later in the school year.

Parents in Wilson and Sumner counties and Athens City were notified on Thursday about the changeup.

“We had planned to start (testing) next week, and our goal is still to start next week,” said Jennifer Cochrane, testing coordinator for Wilson County Schools.

Sumner County Schools posted on Facebook Thursday afternoon that testing in that county would not start until May 2.

TNReady is central to the state’s system of accountability for students, educators, schools and districts. It is the state’s first assessment aligned to Tennessee’s current Common Core academic standards. (Recently revised standards will reach Tennessee classrooms in the 2017-18 school year.)

As the testing window for Part II approached, district officials were cautiously optimistic that testing hiccups — and the interruptions to instructional time that accompanied them — were over.

But even before the state’s latest announcement, many parents and teachers were wary. Anticipating bugs and concerned about over-testing, more than 2,300 people signed a petition asking the state to cancel Part II altogether.

Next year there will at least be fewer opportunities for delays: the state is nixing Part I of the math assessment.

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.