Are Children Learning

Most Common Core standards are keepers, according to Tennessee’s public review

PHOTO: G. Tatter
The Common Core standards for high school math adorn the walls of Christi Root's classroom at Monterey High School in Putnam County.

Tennessee’s six-month-long public review of the Common Core State Standards garnered more than 131,000 reviews of various academic benchmarks — with more than half favoring K-12 standards currently in place, according to numbers released this week by the State Board of Education.

In all, 2,262 Tennesseans participated in the online review conducted between Nov. 6 and April 30. Participants were given opportunity to say “keep it,” “remove it” or “replace it” as they reviewed up to 2,000 standards for math and English. If they selected to remove or replace a standard, they had to explain why in a comment.

When the review was complete, the state website had logged 131,424 reviews and 20,344 comments, with 73,000 of the reviews opting to “keep it.”

Although the review was open to any Tennessee resident, the vast majority of participants — 1,164 in all — were teachers. Next were parents (320), K-12 administrators (141), and other community members (94). Fifteen K-12 students participated, as did seven elected officials.

Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the review last October in response to a growing backlash against the standards due to charges of federal overreach, among other things, although the initiative was launched in 2009 by state leaders across the nation and approved in Tennessee in 2010 by the State Board of Education. In April, the legislature, which had considered several proposals to scrap the standards altogether, approved a compromise bill to codify Haslam’s review process and added its own layer of legislative review. The governor signed the bill on Monday.

The next step is for the State Board of Education and the Southern Regional Education Board, a private firm helping manage the review, to prepare data reports based on the public review. Those reports will go to committees of educators appointed by Haslam as part of the review process and scheduled to convene June 3 for the first time.

Sara Heyburn, director of the State Board of Education, said every review and comment is valued in the process. “We’re not trying to put a lens or filter on the comments in any way,” she said Thursday.

In a telephone news conference later Thursday, Haslam said he is confident in the review process.

“All of the discussion about Common Core and some of the political issues around that, we were determined to not have that distract us from having great standards in Tennessee,” he said. “What we said is these standards have been in place for four years. We’ve had teachers teaching them for four years. We’ve gained a lot of understanding and experience. Let’s go now and look and review and make certain that we come out with even better standards.”

Did you participate in the standards review? Chalkbeat invites you to share your experience and why you participated in the comments below.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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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.