student growth

Here’s why people are talking about Tennessee, a ‘bright green rectangle’ on a new U.S. map of student growth

As recently as 2009, Tennessee was considered a cellar dweller when it came to student performance on national tests known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Maps depicting student proficiency in math and reading showed Tennessee consistently scoring below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP — considered the gold standard of student assessments — even as neighboring states such as Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi fared better.

But now a new map based on a Stanford researcher’s analysis — showing high-growth districts in shades of green and low-growth districts in purple — has people talking, including Kevin Huffman, the state’s former education commissioner.

The analysis, released this month by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, is the largest of its kind. Author Sean Reardon examined standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015. He used NAEP data to link the scores across states and controlled for differences on state tests by converting school performance to a common scale that measures growth in grade levels. Specifically, he looked at two things: 1) average student performance in third-grade math and English tests; and 2) student test score growth between the third and eighth grades.

Tennessee has never turned heads when it comes to proficiency on national tests but, based on several batches of NAEP scores and now Reardon’s map, it’s raising eyebrows on student growth.

“The first thing that jumps out at you on the map is: ‘Who is that little green rectangle in the middle?’ And that little green rectangle, of course, is us,” said Nakia Towns, Tennessee’s assistant education commissioner, during a presentation last week to a state task force on testing.

Reports on Reardon’s work have garnered Tennessee mentions in publications like The New York Times and this clear shout-out from Mother Jones: “Tennessee is a green oasis in the middle of a desert of purple. Someone should figure out what they’re doing right.”

Reardon says the green “suggests that there’s something behind the higher growth rates for Tennessee students than for students elsewhere in the Southeast. But it doesn’t tell us what caused it or why it happened.”

Tennessee officials are quick to pin the growth on a statewide overhaul of K-12 education grounded in higher academic standards, aligned assessments, and across-the-board accountability for districts, schools, teachers and students. That includes its controversial policy to incorporate growth from standardized test scores into teacher evaluations as part of the state’s 2010 First to the Top plan.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

She added that state and district leaders have collaborated to provide training and coaching supports along the way; educators have stepped up their game in the classroom; and two governors (one Democrat, one Republican) and multiple iterations of legislatures have stayed the course on Tennessee’s overall blueprint for improvement, even as major challenges have emerged.

The Stanford analysis adds credibility to the consolation prize that Tennessee officials have touted since the release of 2013 NAEP scores. Tennessee is the nation’s fastest-improving state in math and reading, they say, even as some naysayers have questioned the superlative.

Since 2011, the state’s national ranking has risen from 46th to 25th in fourth-grade math, 41st to 36th in fourth-grade reading, 45th to 37th in eighth-grade math, and 41st to 30th in eighth-grade reading.

Now, Tennessee is waiting anxiously to see if this year’s NAEP scores, to be released early next year, will support that narrative and advance its goal of ranking in the top half of states by 2019.

PHOTO: TDOE

In the meantime, Reardon’s analysis is helping districts compare their quality of education with their peers, and it’s highlighting school systems that are excelling in academic growth, including those in high-poverty areas. (His research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.)

“Tennessee’s average scores are lower than other states, but their growth rates are a little higher,” Reardon said. “That suggests that kids in Tennessee aren’t getting the same kinds of opportunities early on, but they seem to be having opportunities to learn from third to eighth grade.”

For Towns, who oversees data and research for Tennessee’s education department, the map shows in stark terms that it’s not just something in the water when it comes to her state’s student growth, particularly when comparing border districts with their counterparts just across the line in eight other southeastern states. For the most part, it’s green in Tennessee, purple across the line.

“These are people who go to church together, probably shop at the same WalMart, work together across state lines,” she said. “… There’s not a difference in the kinds of students served, but there’s a big difference in the (education) policy context.”

How effective was your Tennessee district?

Use the search box below to learn how much average student growth your local school district* achieved in five years.

*Shelby County’s listing is pre-merger and broken down as Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools (legacy); Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is listed as Davidson County Schools.

Special education reorganization

Only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver met expectations on state tests

Just 2 percent of black students with disabilities in Denver scored at grade-level or higher on state literacy and math tests last year. In raw numbers, that’s just 33 of the 1,641 black students with disabilities in the school district, according to Denver Public Schools data.

The percentage is similar for Latino students with disabilities: only 2.6 percent met expectations on the tests. Meanwhile, nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities did.

Denver school officials recently revealed those shockingly low numbers and stark racial disparities as further justification for a previously proposed reorganization of the department that oversees special education. The reorganization would shrink the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities, and would increase the number of school psychologists and social workers.

The theory is that providing more robust mental health services in schools will allow the central office staff members who remain to shift their focus from managing behavior crises to improving academic instruction. Because of their expertise, those staff members were often tapped to help teachers deal with challenging behavior from all students, not just those with disabilities, said Eldridge Greer, who oversees special education for Denver Public Schools.

District officials also hope that increasing mental health support will reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined. District data show black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students, while Latino students are three times as likely.

“The biases that are in place in our society unfairly target African-American and Latino children to be controlled as a response to trauma, or as a response to readiness-to-learn (issues), instead of being provided more educational support,” Greer said.

Parents of students with disabilities have pushed back against the district’s plan to cut staff dedicated to special education. Advocates have, too.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said that while the district should be embarrassed by how poorly it’s serving students of color, she’s not sure the proposed reorganization will help.

She and others worry the district is siphoning money from special education to pay for services that will benefit all students – and that in the end, those with disabilities will lose out.

“If the district wants to have a full-time social worker and psychologist in every school, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bisceglia said. “What I have a problem with is the plan doesn’t suggest how instruction is going to look different (for students with disabilities) and how the curriculum is going to be different in terms of learning to read and do math.”

Greer said that in large part, the curriculum and strategies the district has in place are the right ones. What’s lacking, he said, is training for special education teachers, especially those who are new to the profession. Having a cadre of central office staff focused solely on academics will help, he said.

The reorganization, as detailed at a recent school board meeting, calls for cutting 45 districtwide experts who help principals serve students with disabilities – and who Greer said spent a lot of time managing behavior crises. In their place, the district would hire 15 academic specialists, eight more behavior specialists (the district already has seven), and four supervisors.

The overhaul would also ensure that all elementary schools have at least one full-time social worker or psychologist. Schools would also get money to put in place new discipline practices. The school board last year revised its discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through third grade.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get $50,000 to spend on a mental health worker, teacher, or teacher’s aide.

School principals invited to discuss the reorganization with the school board said they welcomed being able to hire more social workers and psychologists. But they said they are unsure about the rest of the plan.

One principal said he relied heavily on the expert assigned to help his school serve students with disabilities. Another expressed concern about losing capable staff.

“How do we retain some of that talent so we don’t end up with a brain drain and lose all these people that have all this knowledge and expertise?” said Gilberto Muñoz, the principal at Swansea Elementary School in north Denver.

When district officials first presented the plan earlier this year, they framed it as a way to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. Just 8 percent of Denver fourth-graders with disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test last year, compared with 44 percent of fourth-graders without disabilities.

But Greer said that when they dug into the data, they discovered the racial disparities.

“We knew there were disparities, but to see disparities as profound as the ones I shared with the board, it was important to elevate that,” he said.

Parent Sarah Young said it was courageous of the district to share such shocking data. But she said she thinks their plan to fix the disparities is lacking – and she disagrees with calling it a reorganization.

Young, who has a daughter with a learning disability, visual impairment, and epilepsy, said Denver Public Schools should call the plan what it is: cuts to special education.

“We understand you’re trying to handle behavior,” Young said, referring to the district. “But these are all vulnerable student populations, and we can’t pit them against each other. We can’t be robbing one to try to put a Band-Aid on another.”

Interrupted

Dump truck blamed for fiber optic line cut that disrupted TNReady testing

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A dump truck is behind the fiber optic line cut that led to more disruptions in state testing Thursday, according to the company that provides internet access for many Tennessee school districts.

The severed cable caused slow internet connections for some districts and caused others to not connect at all. A statement from Education Networks of America said Internet connections were re-established within four hours of the “major” break on Thursday morning.

“The resiliency ENA has built into our network backbone and internet access circuits did reduce the impact of the fiber cut significantly,” according to the company’s statement provided by the Tennessee Department of Education.

State officials were quick to point out the issue was not connected to its testing platform, which has been plagued with issues since the state’s three-week testing window opened on April 16.

“This is an issue related to local connectivity, not with the testing platform,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “Testing can continue, but connectivity may be slow in areas that are impacted until this is resolved.”

Many districts chose to suspend testing for the day, while others left the decision up to school principals.

In Memphis, home to the state’s largest district, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said students were “not able to connect” to the state’s online platform Thursday morning and that principals would decide whether to keep trying. At least one Memphis high school was able to complete testing Thursday afternoon.

TNReady’s online test has experienced widespread interruptions on at least four days since testing began. There were log-in issues on the first day, a reported cyber attack on the second, and a problem with online rosters on Wednesday after the state’s testing company, Questar, updated its software the night before.

Concerns about the subsequent validity of the results prompted state lawmakers to pass two pieces of legislation — the latest one on Wednesday — aimed at preventing students, teachers, schools, and districts from being negatively impacted by the data.

The online issues are affecting high school students statewide. Some districts also chose to expand computerized testing this year to middle grades. For the state’s youngest students, TNReady was being given on paper.

This story has been updated.