Are Children Learning

Report: Tennessee improves honesty in reporting student test scores

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Gov. Bill Haslam announces the release of state TCAP scores in 2014.

Once chastised by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for being among the nation’s most dishonest states when reporting student performance, Tennessee now is a leader in attempting to honestly assess its students’ academic proficiency, according to a report released Thursday.

The report, compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Achieve Inc., analyzed the gap between student proficiency scores reported by individual states and those furnished by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a nationally normed test considered one of the most accurate measures of student performance.

The report’s authors said many states continue to post higher math and reading scores on state exams than achieved on NAEP exams, creating an “honesty gap” between what parents are told and how students actually perform.

Tennessee, however, is among eight states celebrated as a “top truth teller” for fourth-grade reading, with a gap of 15 percentage points between 2013-14 state proficiency levels and the state’s 2013 NAEP proficiency levels.

The report cited seven states with an even smaller gap, led by New York and Wisconsin. Georgia’s gap was the largest, at 60 percentage points.

For math, Tennessee’s honesty gap was 19 percentage points, the nation’s 19th smallest.

Overall, more than half of states had gaps of more than 30 percentage points, the report said.

Gov. Bill Haslam said making state test results more reflective of students’ skills is key to improving outcomes, even when the reflection isn’t as good as people would hope.

Speaking during a telephone news conference organized through the Collaborative for Student Success, a pro-Common Core advocacy group, the governor recalled that Tennessee reported a decade ago that more than 90 percent of its students tested on grade level in math and science, although its NAEP scores were much lower. In addition, 70 percent of Tennessee students who continued on to community college had to take remedial courses.

“There’s no way that you can have 90 percent of your kids be at grade level and, in community college, 70 percent need remedial work,” Haslam said. “If you’re not being honest about how you’re performing with kids, it’s an incredible disservice to your citizens.”

Haslam and leaders within the Tennessee Department of Education have warned that test scores likely will go down next school year with the rollout of TNReady, the state’s new, more challenging assessment. The change likely shrinking the gap further.

The report highlighted fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math because “it is essential to learn to read by 4th grade to be able to read to learn moving forward, and 8th grade math proficiency indicates that a student is prepared for higher-level math in high school,” the authors said.

Leaders of the Washington, D.C.-based Collaborative for Student Success hailed the report for encouraging states to be more transparent in reporting test scores.

“The ‘Honesty Gap’ is the result of a lack of political courage from some policymakers who are afraid to come clean to parents about the fact that our students are not prepared for college or the workforce,” said Karen Nussle, the group’s executive director, in a news release.

“The good news is that many states are and have been working to address this gap by adopting higher, comparable standards and implementing high quality tests to measure student progress and give parents real information.”

The results of Tennessee students’ most recent NAEP exams will be released in November. The test, which was taken last January in a random sampling of schools, is administered every other year by the National Center for Education Statistics.

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.