Are Children Learning

New benchmark assessment tool proposed for Memphis students

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

Students in Shelby County may add a new test to their schedule beginning this fall if the district’s Board of Education approves a proposed district-wide benchmark assessment.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez wants students to undergo the new assessment three times this school year to measure their academic progress before having to take the state’s new TNReady exams beginning next spring.

TNReady will be aligned with the state’s current Common Core academic standards, as would the district’s new benchmark assessment wanted by Ramirez. The district’s new “universal screener” would identify students in need of intervention, particularly in reading and math, where 32 percent of district students scored proficient in reading and 40 percent in math this year.

“We have a less-than-perfect assessment portfolio right now,” Ramirez told the Shelby County Board of Education on Tuesday evening. “What we don’t have is a benchmark assessment that would help us monitor schools’ progress during the year so we don’t have to wait until the end of the year to find out if a school is dramatically off course.”

The new assessment was recommended by a district task force convened by Ramirez last winter to research and compare standardized testing options used by other school districts. In June, the task force began searching for a testing vendor.

If the board approves, Ramirez wants the district to purchase the assessment by early September.

“The goal would be to have an assessment in place for administration in September or October of the school year,” Ramirez told the board, adding that the plan is “to administer that three times a year.”

Ramirez said the district is seeking one vendor to provide assessment tools for all students pre-K through 12th grade in an attempt to streamline the process. The assessment likely would be administered online, she said.

TNReady, the state’s new TCAP test for English language arts and math in grades 3-11, also will be administered primarily online. To accommodate the technological transition, Shelby County Schools and other districts across Tennessee are investing in new computers, software and training.

Earlier Tuesday, the board’s legislative committee discussed concerns about over-testing — an issue that is being reviewed by a state testing task force convened last spring by Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“The drums are beating really hard in Nashville as far as whether or not we’re testing our students too much, so we can make sure that our teachers get their bonuses and our schools stay off the priority lists,” board member Kevin Woods told Ramirez. “Quite honestly, this investment bothers me quite a bit.”

Ramirez responded that the new assessment is needed for accountability to inform instruction.

Memphis has the highest concentration of low-performing schools in Tennessee. Both the district and the state have turned the city into a battleground for school improvement.

Once approved, the new benchmark assessment would require three to four weeks of technology preparation for students to take the test, as well as professional development for teachers to familiarize themselves with the new instrument.

See Ramirez’ PowerPoint presentation to the school board here.

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.