an objective measure

As new teacher evaluation system looms, Tisch defends need for state tests

Catherine Nolan, speaking to Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (right) and Regent Kathleen Cashin.

As state education officials have been tasked with crafting a new teacher evaluation system, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Tuesday continued to defend the need for a state test as a necessary measure to address longstanding inequities.

State test results “scream to anyone who looks at them carefully for the needs of access and opportunity for students living in our high-needs districts,” she said. “We need an objective measure and that objective measure is a state test.”

One week before schools will start to administer the state’s annual reading exam, Tisch took issue with the motives of those supporting the movement to opt students out of taking the tests and blamed high levels of student stress on “angry rhetoric” coming from adults.

“I truly believe that if the adults in the situation and in the room start to work with each other — calm down a little bit — I think the stress levels would be greatly diminished,” she said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Tuesday.

Tisch has spoken out against the opt-out movement before, calling it a “terrible mistake,” but her comments Tuesday went a step further by calling out Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, for openly urging parents to “opt out.”

While city teachers union leaders have avoided making similar statements, Tisch cautioned against the possible implications of endorsing the movement for the purpose of parent choice.

If the teachers union comes out in support of opting out of annual state tests, “as Karen Magee at NYSUT has,” Tisch said, “I would say… if it’s parents’ rights, let’s put it all on the table. Let’s not just pick one thing and say, ‘We want parents to have a choice there.’”

“Why don’t we talk about parents whose kids don’t have a choice other than to go to a failing school or to have a teacher that hasn’t been effective or prepared effectively?”

Tisch also warned that a mass opt-out of the state tests could result in New York moving away from its own locally-designed exams and be forced to adopt the Common Core-aligned tests created by one of two groups of states.

“In order for us to be able to have a viable state test, we need a viable number of students in every district showing up to be tested,” she said.

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year.

State test scores will continue to play a prominent role in how a teacher is rated, which will also take into account at least one observation by the teacher’s principal, and one observation from an “independent” evaluator.

Under the budget agreement, the ratings will also be tied to teacher tenure eligibility and be used to make it easier to fire a teacher who repeatedly earns “ineffective” ratings.

“Not one teacher in this state has yet been let go, to the best of my knowledge, because of anything having to do with evaluations,” Tisch said.

But Tisch reiterated that “nowhere in the new law” does it require that 50 percent of a teacher’s overall rating must be based on student growth on state standardized tests, which is the measure that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hoping to achieve.

matrix_cb
Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.

The governor and legislative leaders are “all over the map” when it comes to the new rating system, Tisch said. “They are looking to us to bring a grown up’s perspective to a very complicated issue… This has been set up so no matter who we disappoint, it’s our fault.”

The state education commissioner (for now, a vacant position) and Tisch have been tasked with settling the details of the new scoring system by the end of June — though they require approval from the full 17-member board.

And while the governor’s office has been referring to the state education department’s role in developing the evaluation system as “purely administrative,” Tisch said the budget language provides an “enormous opportunity” to speak with teachers, principals, superintendents and parents about “where we’ve been” and “where we need to go.”

“I hope that the state education department will be able to become the table of reason to manage this in an appropriate way, so that educators feel good about it, parents are informed about it, and the system is allowed to go on and put all of this noise and nonsense behind them,” she said.

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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.