Shelby County Schools gets PARCC-ready, gives practice tests online

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Colonial Middle School eighth graders practice taking the writing assessment online.

Taylor Matthews, an eighth-grader at Colonial Middle School, read an article titled,  “The Woman Called Moses,”  and stared at her computer screen for several minutes before hammering out on the keyboard–albeit slowly– an essay summarizing the life of Harriet Tubman.

For the next month, Taylor and thousands of children across Shelby County will practice taking tests online.  It’s in preparation for next school year when students, teachers and administrators will be partly evaluated by a new online-only standardized test known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC.

While the practice tests are being given over the next few weeks, administrators will be looking to make sure there are enough functional computers to go around and the broadband Internet doesn’t crash when masses of students upload their work all at once.  More crucially, teachers will work to make sure students can convey all of what they’ve learned to a computer module.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” said William White, Shelby County Schools’ chief of planning and accountability.

It’s not as easy as you think.  During the hour-long test administrators let a Chalkbeat reporter sit through at Colonial Middle School, a computer crashed and students with visibly no keyboard typing skills struggled to type out their thoughts before time was up.

Taylor wanted her essay on the Underground Railroad hero to be perfect.  After 15 minutes of quiet concentration she got flustered and deleted all of her work.

“I didn’t like it, so I started over,” Matthews said after class was dismissed.

Colonial Middle eighth grader Taylor Matthews took the practice writing assessment online last week.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Colonial Middle eighth grader Taylor Matthews took the practice writing assessment online last week.

The PARCC assessment for English and language arts will test students’ ability to read two pieces of complex material and write two essays about them.  

PARCC tests in language arts and math won’t take place until spring 2015.  Science and social studies skills will still be tested using the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP — in other words, they’ll be given with the traditional number No. 2 pencil and paper.

A spokesperson with Tennessee’s Department of Education said 127,000  eighth and 11th graders took the writing assessment online last year and there were minor technical issues. Most of them were problems with uploaded work or students using the program incorrectly, officials said.

The state recently released a new optional online practice writing system that teachers can use with their students.

In Shelby County,  109 of the district’s schools will be randomly selected to participate in two state-monitored  field tests of the PARCC assessment.  The first testing period will be March 24 through April 11 and the second will be May 5 through May 16.  The tests do not count against the district, schools or teachers and results will not be returned.  Next year, teachers will receive value-added scores for the English language arts portion of PARCC. (Find out more about the PARCC exams here.)

Because value-added scores are based on a three-year rolling average, will only account for 11 to 12 percent of a teacher’s evaluation during 2014-15.

“We want students to take the test seriously, try their best, but don’t stress out,” White said.

PARCC impact on Tennessee Value-Added scores for teachers.
PHOTO: TN Dept. of Education
PARCC impact on Tennessee Value-Added scores for teachers.

Shelby County Schools will give students the annual TCAP this year beginning April 29 through May 5.

Although Colonial eighth-grade teacher Janie Warner expressed confidence in her students’ readiness for the writing assessment, she and other administrators noted that many students lack strong keyboarding skills. 

“Keyboarding skills are a must,” Warner said. “Students need to be able to write a five paragraph paper at least on the eighth grade level.  The goal is for them to be able to read, understand and write.”

Colonial Middle schooler takes practice writing assessment online last week.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Colonial Middle schooler takes practice writing assessment online last week.

Students in Warner’s class were quiet during the practice writing assessment.  They focused on reading the lengthy article of Harriet Tubman’s work to free southern slaves using the Underground Railroad.  Warner only helped students who had technical problems with their computers since students must do their own work during the actual test.  Warner looked over some of the students’ shoulders, but didn’t offer them any suggestions.

In the practice writing assessment, the computer screen is divided horizontally – the article is displayed at the top of the screen and an area for students to type their essay is displayed on the bottom of the screen. Students are able to highlight from the source text in order to fact check or accurately quote the material.

Taylor used the feature when she wanted to confirm the year Tubman escaped slavery – which was 1849, according to the article.

Taylor liked her second draft much better, but just as she was going along, her MacBook laptop shut down.

Matthews sighed, stretched and raised her hand until Warner came to her aid.

Warner collected Matthews’ computer and the two resolved to start again the next day.

Luckily, the computer system saves students’ work.

Chalkbeat’s @TajuanaCheshier discussed the issue recently on WKNOFM.  Listen here  ckbe.at/1g6ldkk.

Colonial Middle school student takes the practice online writing assessment last week.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Colonial Middle school student takes the practice online writing assessment last week.


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”