REPORT: Internal Review of High School Test Participation

Key Highlights

  • The internal review process was labor intensive and the credibility of the review is validated by the fact that the district independently identified many of the same students that the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) inquired about.
  • After four months of research, the district found no indication of systemic “gamesmanship” where students were being moved out of classes to avoid end-of-course (EOC) exams in order to inflate school performance data, which was the primary allegation made against the district.
  • The district did identify a relatively small number of cases where students were removed from EOC courses and placed in credit recovery without having the opportunity to first attempt the second semester of the course in a traditional classroom.  Most of these students did not take the EOC exam. However, these students accounted for only 0.1% of EOC exams administered during that particular school year.
  • In response to the internal review findings, the district has revised and strengthened its course retake policy to give more specific guidance on when credit recovery should be used to help struggling students.

Review Process

  • Interim Director of Schools Chris Henson asked Chief Operating Officer Fred Carr to investigate the allegations being made against the district related to the use of credit recovery and EOC testing.
  • The TDOE separately asked for information on more than 500 students in regard to EOC exam participation.
  • The Chief Operating Officer is responsible for testing and accountability through the Department of Research, Assessment and Evaluation (RAE). The Chief Academic Officer is responsible for principal supervision.
    • This structure is set up deliberately to separate the two and keep accountability independent from instructional leadership. One does not answer to the other.
  • RAE worked for four months carefully analyzing student data from multiple sources to answer TDOE inquiries and internal questions about student class assignments and EOC participation.
  • This was a time-intensive process that required many hundreds of staff  hours. The result is an “Internal Review” report, as well as a spreadsheet and multiple pieces of documentation delivered to TDOE.
  • In addition, RAE did a system-wide analysis to review school practices related to credit recovery and participation that have resulted in changes to policy and practice.


 Credit Recovery

  • There is no system-wide course code to identify credits earned in credit recovery, making it impossible to accurately identify the number of students taking credit recovery.
  • Furthermore, there is little state guidance on use of credit recovery programs and great variation from district to district.
  • In Metro Schools, there are inconsistencies in the way credit recovery is applied and and used.
  • In several cases, it appears district policies and procedures were not followed, allowing 42 students to earn course credit through credit recovery without initially completing the second semester of the course in a traditional classroom.
    • 42 students represent 0.1% of the 35,561 EOC exams administered in 2014-15.

End-of-Course Exams

  • While there is one outlier among the district’s 24 high schools, deep and detailed analysis of EOC participation rates found no evidence of systemic gamesmanship or intentional manipulation of EOC data.
  • With the exception of one school, all high schools had EOC errors in numbers small enough to be attributable to human error or complicated student mobility.  At the outlier high school, the issue is being addressed with administration.
  • The state calculates participation rate in a simple manner that counts the number of attempted tests against the number of answer documents returned. This counts all students who are enrolled in an EOC class on that day, but not all students who were enrolled in that EOC class at some point during the year.
  • To account for this difference, RAE used several different methods to calculate participation rate. One included following a cohort of students through four years of high school and analyzing their EOC participation independent of the state’s calculation.
    • This method helps account for students moving in and out of classes and taking tests at different times.
    • It also takes into account legitimate exclusions, such as absent students, students in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, certain English learner students and others.
  • In both calculations, the state’s official calculation and the district’s more thorough calculation, participation rates were very high.
    • State Calculation
      • 98% overall in 2014-15
      • At or above 97% in each subject for each of the past three years
      • All zoned high schools exceed 95% annually
    • District Cohort Calculation (including legitimate exclusions)
      • Algebra I – 98.4%
      • Algebra II – 96.4%
      • English I – 98%
      • English II – 96.8%
      • English III – 93.1%
      • Biology I – 99.3%
    • In the case of English III, some of these students are scheduled to take the EOC this spring.  Others missed the test last spring and were not required to take it over the summer because the state did not offer EOCs last summer.
    • Given this exceptional circumstance, and in order to get a more typical view of Algebra II and English III participation at these schools, RAE applied the district calculation to the 2013-14 cohort of 11th graders.
      • In this analysis, Hunters Lane High School did have an unusually high number of students (21) with no EOC record in Algebra II. All other schools had 7 or fewer.
      • Hunters Lane also had an unusually high number of students (27) with no EOC record in English III. All other schools had 3 or fewer.
      • The majority of these Hunters Lane students were moved out of the course during the second semester and into credit recovery.

ACT Participation

  • Calculating ACT participation rate can also be done in multiple ways. To answer media inquiries, RAE was asked to calculate the rate as a percentage of 11th graders, which is typically the year students take the test.
  • But in fact, TDOE has indicated that official participation rates, soon to be used in district accountability, will likely be based upon high school completers, not tied to a specific grade level. TDOE even encourages the use of vouchers to allow 12th graders to take the ACT if they miss it in the 11th grade.
  • Obviously, this means vastly different rates can be produced depending on the method used. The district believes it should be calculated against high school completers, as the ACT is seen as a culminating activity for students.
  • Using this method, the ACT participation rate for the class of 2014 was 94%. That number dropped to 87.4% in 2015 due to a snow storm that closed schools on the ACT test day. The make-up day was during spring break. This caused many students to miss the test entirely.
  • In addition, a great deal of data quality issues exist in calculating ACT participation. ACT will often generate multiple records for one student or put students in the district file who are not enrolled in Metro Schools.
  • Because of these issues, RAE is hesitant to generate more detailed participation data until TDOE finalizes the rules surrounding accountability for participation.

Tennessee Department of Education Inquiries

  • Having TDOE provide a list of specific student names and cases for review was extremely helpful. Some cases could be easily explained by absences, mobility, discipline or other circumstances. Others could not.
  • After reviewing cases and sending responses back to TDOE, Department officials still had questions about 86 students. Of these 86 cases, only four schools had more than 5 students on the list:
    • Hunters Lane – 30
    • Maplewood – 14
    • Glencliff – 7
    • Pearl-Cohn – 7
  • Another TDOE inquiry centered on a relatively high percentage of 9th graders without English I EOC answer documents (20.2% in 2013-14 and 17.8% in 2014-15).
  • Analysis of student course history shows that many of these students have been classified as 9th graders for more than one year because they have not earned the required number or type of credits to be on track for four-year graduation.
    • In many other districts, students are not listed as “9th grade repeaters” regardless of credits earned. That is not the case in Metro Schools.
  • So even though these students may be classified as 9th graders, most would have taken the English I EOC in a previous year and many were enrolled in English II or III.
  • In addition, many of those 9th graders were English learners who are taking language development courses before English I.
  • Taking these into consideration, course enrollment analysis shows that less than 3% of 9th graders during these years were not enrolled in an English class.


  • Metro Schools takes test participation and academic intervention very seriously. While we do not feel there have been widespread, systemic issues in either area, it is clear that more monitoring needs to occur and new policies and procedures implemented.

Credit Recovery

  • Credit recovery can provide good reinforcement of core academic concepts, and we stand by our use of it to help students earn credits in classes they previously failed.
  • However, the TDOE’s current four year calculation for graduation rate puts increased pressure on students and teachers to earn credits, particularly in subjects that require four years of classes like math and English.
  • We recommend the state adopt a five year calculation for graduation rate to give students more flexibility in retaking classes and earning credits.
  • The new student information system through Infinite Campus will allow for course codes that specifically identify credit recovery. This will make reporting and oversight more robust.
  • The course retake policy has been revised and strengthened to give greater guidance for principals, counselors and teachers on the best educational practices for when to use credit recovery to help struggling students.

End-of-Course Exams

  • RAE will produce an EOC course enrollment file at the time of testing to help verify which students need to take EOC exams. This will be post-exam verification much more thorough than it is currently.
  • RAE will also generate a new report to monitor EOC exam participation based on the more strict calculation method to share with district leadership.
  • Based on the arduous data analysis work done by RAE staff to answer TDOE inquiries, a new report will be built in the Data Warehouse that allows for automatic generation of the same data analysis. This report will be available to school counselors and district staff for easy monitoring of student credits earned and EOC requirements.

ACT Participation

  • ACT participation is now part of district accountability to TDOE, though districts do not yet know how TDOE will calculate the rate. Once these business rules are finalized, RAE will refine its own reporting.
  • RAE will continue working with school staff to identify students eligible to test.
  • RAE will continue attempts to address ACT data quality concerns prior to calculating participation rate.
  • We recommend that TDOE allow 12th graders to test on the one day each year set aside for statewide ACT testing.

TNReady and TCAP Tests

  • RAE recommends using the same methods to monitor EOC participation that are detailed above and applying them also to TCAP and TNReady exams in grades 3-8.


School-based budgeting gives power to the principals

“Knowledge about the needs of students is greatest closest to the student… School leaders require the ability to make decisions based on their knowledge, expertise and professional discretion.”

In a world of principal autonomy and school-based decision making, what is left for the central organization of a modern school district? Where does it fit in, and what role does it have to play?

Here in Nashville, the role of central office is changing dramatically. The top-down management structure is disappearing. In its place is a knowledge and support organization designed to provide central services, study and share innovative practices, develop leaders and keep schools accountable. In fact, this change is already reflected in the district budget and in a pilot program working in 15 schools right now for school-based budgeting.

What is school-based budgeting, and what does that look like?

At these 15 schools, principals have direct control over $6,300 per student (on average), meaning they can spend that money as they see fit. That number is expected to increase over time. The rest of the money goes to central services like transportation, food services, human capital, textbooks, building services and more.

SEE the school’s individual budgets.

The idea is to bring powerful decision-making power right into the schools, where the most knowledge about individual students lives. Next year, this program is expected to expand to 50-60 schools and could go district-wide by 2015-16.

During that time the whole concept could go even further, putting 100% of per-pupil funding on school level budgets. That would greatly expand the level of flexibility and discretion given to each principal and ensure funding is distributed equitably based on individual student need. In that scenario, school leaders would “buy” central services from the district, and there would be certain non-negotiable services like the Board of Education.

This is a culture change, moving central office to a system of specialized support for schools and giving more decision-making power to principals.

High school graduate or dropout? It’s complicated.

When is a high school dropout really a graduate? It’s a strange but appropriate question when you look at the way graduate rates are calculated.

The education team at Nashville Public Television explores this question and breaks down what Nashville’s graduation rate really means in a new documentary airing this Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. The special is called “Graduation by the Numbers” and is part of the national “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen” series exploring high school dropout rates and efforts to boost graduation.

If you haven’t seen the previous “American Graduate” entry from NPT, called “Translating the Dream,” you’re really missing out. It looks at the challenges facing English learner and immigrant students as they try to graduate high school and navigate the options – or lack of options – given to them afterward.

If you want to join the conversation about graduates and dropouts, you can join NPT online this Tuesday night, January 22 at 7:30 p.m., for an online social screening of “Translating the Dream” using a new public media tool called OVEE. Producer LaTonya Turner and other panelists will join in on the discussion.

Translating the Dream: Online screening & panel discussion
Tuesday, January 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Click here to take part.

“Graduation by the Numbers”
Documentary airs Thursday, January 24 at 9:00 p.m.
on NPT channel 8

Here is more from the NPT press release:

Half-hour documentary looks at “Graduation by the Numbers;” part of national “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen” initiative.

NASHVILLE, Tennessee – January 10, 2013 — Nashville Public Television (NPT-Channel 8)  takes an in-depth look at efforts in Nashville to keep students in school until they graduate in “NPT Reports: Graduation by the Numbers,” premiering Thursday, January 24 at 9:00 p.m. The documentary is part of the national “American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen” initiative.

In Nashville Public Schools in 2012, one in 11 students dropped out — 8.8 percent — which is almost four times the previous year’s dropout rate. But a student counted as a dropout is not necessarily someone who does not graduate. The result is that the graduation rate can go up—even as the rate of dropouts goes up. The NPT report, produced and narrated by LaTonya Turner, looks at why the numbers for graduates and those for dropouts often don’t add up.

“The numbers can be confusing and in some cases misrepresentative of who is graduating and who is not,” says Turner.

Nashville school officials have taken the lead in Tennessee by looking for ways to make student data more useful, accurate, and accessible, with the goal of spotting students in trouble before they show up in school reports or drop out altogether. The main risk factors for students dropping out are: attendance, academic performance, and behavior. Using a new online digital system for tracking individual student data called the Data Dashboard, Nashville educators can now pinpoint and trace the risk factors and intervene with the student early enough to prevent failure. They are finding that high school may be too late; the risk in many cases begins in middle school or even earlier.

Nashville’s new middle school bridge program was begun to specifically start honing in on earlier for students at risk of dropping out. Simultaneously, some Nashville high schools are now aggressively working to retain the students who might have slipped through but are starting to slip off the path to graduation..” to graduation. A good example is McGavock High School, the largest school in Nashville, which was among the first to embrace the Data Dashboard as a tool – from the office to students in the classroom. It’s part of McGavock’s aggressive effort to turn around a dismal performance record.

Following Nashville’s lead, Tennessee education officials are on the cusp of launching a statewide online data tracking system. The goal is to help educators more effectively identify and reach out to individual students with strategies and support that address their specific risk factors for dropping out before graduation.

“Graduation by the Numbers” is the second in a series of public affairs documentary by NPT as part of its role in the national Corporation for Public Broadcating (CPB) initiative “American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen.” The first was “NPT Reports: Translating the Dream,”  an in-depth look at the graduation rate among ELL and immigrant students in Tennessee; the challenges they face that can prevent them from graduating on time; how schools and teachers are trying to address this increasingly demanding need; and how all of us are impacted when students drop out of school. It is available for free online viewing now at

About Nashville Public Television
Nashville Public Television is available free and over the air to nearly 2.4 million people throughout the Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky viewing area, and is watched by more than 600,000 households every week. The mission of NPT is to provide, through the power of traditional television and interactive telecommunications, high quality educational, cultural and civic experiences that address issues and concerns of the people of the Nashville region, and which thereby help improve the lives of those we serve.

About American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen
American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen is helping local communities identify and implement solutions to the high school dropout crisis. American Graduate demonstrates public media’s commitment to education and its deep roots in every community it serves. Beyond providing programming that educates, informs and inspires, public radio and television stations — locally owned and operated — are an important resource in helping to address critical issues, such as the dropout rate. In addition to national programming, more than 75 public radio and television stations have launched on-the-ground efforts working with community and at risk youth to keep students on-track to high school graduation. More than 800 partnerships have been formed locally through American Graduate, and CPB is working with Alma and Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation .

About CPB
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967, is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting. It helps support the operations of more than 1,300 locally-owned and -operated public television and radio stations nationwide, and is the largest single source of funding for research, technology, and program development for public radio, television and related online services.

Two teachers at Metro Schools named Nashvillians of the Year for 2012

Nashvillians of the Year Cover Photo

Cover courtesy of The Nashville Scene and photographer Michael W. Bunch

What a way to end 2012.

Two teachers in Metro Schools have been named Nashvillians of the Year by the Nashville Scene. Adam Taylor of Overton High School and Christina McDonald of Nashville Prep Charter School represent the teachers who “give Nashville’s schoolchildren, no matter what their background, a fighting chance to reach their brightest future.”

In a lengthy and detailed article, reporter Steven Hale lays out the bare – and sometimes forgotten – fact in our city’s current debate over education: whether charter school or district school, great teachers are at the center of great education.

It’s a great piece, and I strongly recommend you take a few moments to read the full article so you can see how teachers like Christina and Adam can bring the focus of the education discussion back where it belongs.

The Scene would like to refocus the discussion of public education not on differences and squabbles, but on the enormous asset that charter and public schools have in common: the teachers who are the most active, direct agents of hope Nashville’s children will face outside the home. As our 2012 Nashvillians of the Year, the Scene honors two such instructors: one from a charter school, Christina McDonald at Nashville Prep, and one from a traditional Metro district school, Adam Taylor at Overton High.

They are hardly alone. Space does not permit us to list the many outstanding district and charter teachers who slug it out in Nashville’s trenches throughout the school year, fighting the shared enemies of poverty, hunger, troubled home lives, behavioral problems, language barriers, bad outside influences and limited resources. But McDonald and Taylor are sterling examples of what can be accomplished by creative thinking, supportive administrators, and sheer determination. To look inside their classrooms is to see small miracles happen every day — and to see a brighter future for Nashville schoolchildren of all races and backgrounds than statistics sometimes let us hope.

Read the full article here.

What does a bank executive think about being principal for a day?

by Connie White, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at Fifth Third Bank

As I walked up the stairs to start my first morning as Principal for a Day at East Nashville Magnet School, I wondered what the walls of this 80 year old school would tell me if they could talk. After my visit, again, I was curious what these walls will tell us in the next five years.

My prediction: I believe they will talk of the seniors who are better prepared, academically and socially, to be active members of society. I believe that 100% of the seniors will graduate, and even more students will gain and seize the opportunity a college education can bring. Yes I believe the walls will talk about reaping the harvest from the seeds sewn by the MNPS Paideia Lead Principal, Steve Ball, staff and teachers, in just a few years.

Why is this data geek (me), making a prediction without reviewing test scores? Engagement. Respect. Collaboration. Caring. Pride.

Yes, I saw all of that and more, when I recently had the privilege of visiting East Magnet Middle School and High School with Principal Steve Ball. I saw a team all focused on learning in an environment where students are encouraged to express their ideas and opinions. I saw students who were actively engaged and were taking responsibility of their quest for knowledge.

I wish you could have seen the fifth graders smile as they proudly gave articulate narratives about the outcome of a recent project using Power Point, posters, and props to make their points. Or if you’d seen every hand in the room eagerly waving to answer questions in science class, you might understand the level of enthusiastic engagement I saw. If you could hear the pride in Principal’s voice announcing in the morning call that two more seniors gained their college acceptance letters, you’d understand the caring for students. Or if you’d heard the students making their way to their next class continuously saying, “Good morning Principal Ball,” you could witness the mutual respect I experienced.

Admitting that I’d never seen such an engaged student body that seemed to have more interest in learning than social exchange at that age, I asked about it. “These students want to be here to learn,” said Principal Ball. I was somewhat astonished because in my high school days we thought about our dates, parties, and attire and talked about how we couldn’t wait to graduate to be on our own.

As we talked more, I learned that Principal Ball was responsible for bringing the Paideia education process to East Nashville Magnet Schools, a process where students actively engage in intellectual discussions and learn from each other. Using this process to discuss current issues, students also learn the art of collaboration as they learn to listen and value many ideas and opinions. I came to respect this process and understood that students could practice this process to learn throughout their life’s journey, whether in school, the business world or their community.

If you ever gain the opportunity to visit East Nashville Magnet School, I encourage you to go. I promise you, it will be worth every minute of your time to witness a team that focuses on equipping children with a good academic base, social and learning skills for life… and the academic knowledge to exceed national test scores.

ACT Now! Our plan to raise ACT scores across the district

Every high school student in Tennessee is required totake the ACT. Tennessee is one of just a handful of states with this requirement and while that is not always good for our public image – it perhaps puts statewide test scores below other states where only the best and brightest take the test – it is very good for our students. Some students who might not otherwise take the test are required to, giving them an additional college credential or even a HOPE scholarship.

We want all our high school students to score a bare minimum 21 on the ACT. Of course, we prepare them to reach much higher than that, but we set the minimum at 21 because that is when scholarships and financial aid to state schools are within reach. With a 21, many students can afford college.

This year’s ACT results for our district show we still have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.  In fact, we’ve advanced our scores at a faster rate than the rest of the state.

But it’s still not good enough. We need better results in a shorter amount of time. We need results like the ones at Hillwood High School.

In the short time since Hillwood principal Dr. Steve Chauncy started his ACT Now program, the percentage of his students scoring 21 or higher has risen nearly 10%. When you consider statewide gains are measured in tenths of a percent, that is a huge jump.

How did Hillwood do it? And how will Dr. Chauncy and the Hillwood team spread similar results district-wide?

  1. Practice, practice, practice
    Before students take the actual ACT in their junior year, they sit for up to six practice tests – one as freshmen, the PLAN test, two practice assessments as sophomores, and two as juniors. Those tests are as real as they come, often actual ACT exams from previous years given through a program called Learning Express. By the time they sit for the real thing, they know exactly what to expect.
  2. Targeted instruction
    Rather than teaching students how to take a test, data from these practice tests is used for targeted instruction in the classroom. Areas of need are identified for individual students, and lessons can be are tailored to those needs. That starts right away. Freshmen come into Hillwood carrying data from the EXPLORE test taken in middle school. That data is used to start building ACT college skills in freshmen seminar classes.
  3. Critical Thinking Classes
    All Hillwood sophomores take a Critical Thinking and Imaginative Writing course where they learn how to apply their knowledge to problem solving and real world scenarios. That helps work through tough questions like those on the ACT and the even tougher questions students will later address in college and in their careers.
  4. Adaptable Solutions for All Schools
    This program has been shared across the district to all zoned high schools. But not every high school is the same, so it is can be easily molded to fit a particular school’s needs, resources, and abilities. As schools find improvements, they will be incorporated into the ACT Now program so the district is in a cycle of continuous improvement.

Development for this program is far from over. We are going even deeper into the data, looking at individual questions on practice tests to identify the academic support students need and we are providing afterschool tutoring for juniors with support from HCA.

The program began at Hillwood in the fall of 2010 and is spreading so all our high schools see rapid growth and all students are college ready and eligible for scholarship dollars.