TNReady Testimony

As lawmakers grill McQueen about Tennessee’s testing problems, here are five things we learned

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (center) testifies before Tennessee lawmakers along with Questar CEO Stephen Lazer and Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has pledged to ensure the accuracy of Tennessee’s new standardized test as frustrated lawmakers are seeking explanations for a second straight year of testing problems.

McQueen and her staff offered new details about the latest breakdown on Tuesday in their first appearance before legislators since reporting that the state’s testing company incorrectly scored paper tests for some high school students this year. She called scanning mistakes the culprit and said the state is working closely with Questar to prevent such problems in the future.

A year earlier, the botched rollout of online testing led to the test’s cancellation for grade-schoolers, the firing of Tennessee’s previous test maker, and the decision to phase in online testing over three years.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
McQueen (far left) pauses with her team, including Questar CEO Stephen Lazer (far right), to hear a few final comments from lawmakers.

The state is ultimately responsible for this year’s “failure,” McQueen said, but she let Questar CEO Stephen Lazer take some heat too.

“We at Questar own that it happened,” said Lazer, who sat beside McQueen during the hearing. “It should have been caught (earlier), and it won’t happen again.”

Earlier in the day, Gov. Bill Haslam called the controversy overblown because this year’s errors were discovered as part of the state’s process for vetting scores.

“I think the one thing that’s gotten lost in all this discussion is the process worked,” Haslam told reporters. “It was during the embargo period before any of the results were sent out to students and their families that this was caught.”

The three-hour hearing at the State Capitol was dotted with occasional testy exchanges as lawmakers bemoaned the challenge of rebuilding trust in Tennessee’s problem-plagued assessment. They questioned why teachers, as part of their evaluations, appear to be the only ones being held accountable for this year’s results.

“Are we terminating this contract (with Questar)?” asked Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley who is running for governor. “… Have there been any modifications (to the contract) as a result of this error?”

McQueen responded that the contract hasn’t changed, but that the state’s work plan with Questar has.

“We have had intense conversations between the department and the vendor on quality improvements and expectations,” she said, “and we are moving forward with very specific deadlines.”

The hearing also featured testimony from teachers, several teachers unions, a superintendent, a school board member, and a researcher. Some called for a three-year moratorium on using TNReady scores for accountability purposes; others urged the state to “stay the course.”

Here are five things we learned:

1. The scoring problem came to light because of discrepancies flagged at one school.

As they looked at the data, educators at Blackman High School in Rutherford County noticed that some of their highest-performing students scored low on one standard in English language arts. That raised a red flag since those same students had demonstrated proficiency on that standard in other assessments. The district contacted the state, which requested an investigation from Questar, which traced the discrepancies to a scoring error when scanning paper tests. “The scanning program was incorrect,” Lazer said. “The scanners read the documents right, but the data was in the wrong columns.”

2. Tennessee plans to release scores next year before the new school year begins.

The state has gotten pushback for this year’s protracted scoring schedule that ended this month, more than two months after the school year began. While the scoring process takes longer with a new test, McQueen said the state is committed to getting all scores out by mid-August next year. She said districts will receive their preliminary high school scores by the end of May for inclusion in students’ final grades. Final high school scores will go out in July. For grades 3-8, scores should be delivered by mid-August at the latest, she said.

3. The state is banking on its transition to online testing to expedite high school results.

After the online fiasco that soured TNReady’s first year, McQueen’s decision to slow-walk the state back into online testing also slowed the subsequent scoring and delivery process. But 2018 marks the first school year that all high schoolers will take the test online again — a change that state officials feel confident about after 25 districts successfully made the leap this year. (Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students in grades 3-4.)

4. There is talk of an outside investigation into Tennessee’s testing failures.

Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville asked McQueen if she would object to a top-to-bottom review of Tennessee’s testing challenges from an independent third party such as the state comptroller’s office. “Not at all,” McQueen responded, adding that her department has sought proactively to improve the process.

5. McQueen plans to reconvene her testing task force — again.

One of her first acts as commissioner in 2015 was to form a task force to study concerns about over-testing and recommend improvements. So grave were testing-related issues that McQueen followed up with a second study panel in 2016, even as the state has remained committed to TNReady as the lynchpin of its system of accountability. Now the commissioner wants to reconvene that task force this year to begin looking specifically at 11th-grade testing and diagnostic assessments used by districts, among other things. McQueen told lawmakers that she hopes to have the first meeting by December.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to identify the Rutherford County school where scoring concerns were flagged.

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.