grappling with grades

Stung by low test scores and grade tampering, Memphis leaders consider a major change in grade practices

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, will be the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Students would be graded for what they know about Tennessee’s new academic standards rather than getting averaged A-F letter grades under a significant shift being explored by Shelby County Schools.

The practice, called “standards-based grading,” aims to better measure how well students are prepared for the the state’s standardized test and eventually the ACT college entrance exam.

Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin shared the idea Tuesday with school board members as the district seeks to complete its first-ever academic plan since the 2013 merger of city and county schools.

Talk of a completely new grading system comes as Tennessee’s largest district seeks to rebound from low test scores under the state’s new academic standards and tougher test. It also represents the first serious look at revamping district-wide grading practices since investigators recommended instituting more uniform policies after discovering a culture of improper grade changes at one high school.

“We want to make sure our students aren’t just receiving grades and doing the work, but that those grades are aligned to the standards that the state is asking us to master on the test,” Griffin said. “And we want to make sure that the report card grades are also aligned to that mastery.”

But any changes likely would be more than a year away. District officials want to do more research and to vet the idea with teachers, parents, and school leaders.

A switch to standards-based grading would put a permanent end to some schools’ use of “grade floors,” a practice of setting a minimum on the lowest grade a teacher can assign, which had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy.

“A grading floor would not be necessary if all teachers employed standards-based grading,” a report to school board members said. “However, in the absence of a standards-based grading policy, Shelby County Schools will reinforce that assignments should be designed to measure students’ mastery of standards (and) that all current grading policies should be adhered to.”

Standards-based grading isn’t completely new in Memphis. Teachers who taught early grades under the former Memphis City Schools used the practice to provide qualitative reports to parents, describing how well their students were doing in specific areas. And the practice is still used at Campus School, one of the Shelby County Schools’ highest-performing schools, which is also affiliated with the University of Memphis.

There’s little research on how the practice impacts a student’s learning experience. However, a 2011 University of Kentucky study reported that most teachers and parents in Kentucky districts that used standards-based grading found the new report cards easy to understand and more meaningful than A-F grades. Teachers said the report cards required more time, but that “the quality of information they could provide made the extra effort worthwhile.”

You can view a sample of a standards-based report card below:

PHOTO: The Glossary of Education Reform
Sample report card under standard-based grading.

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.