Opting Out of TNReady

Yes, you can opt your child out of this year’s TNReady test. This is true in spite of misleading guidance offered to school districts by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Fortunately, the advocates over at Save our Schools PAC offer some key insight into just how to accomplish this. Here’s a quick rundown:

There are only eight states that allow you to opt your child out of testing. Tennessee is NOT one of those states. However, there are no state laws in TN that require your child to take any TNReady test, so you and your child can refuse the test.

To refuse the test, you’ll need to make your request in writing and explain to your child why they will not be taking the test and to not be pressured into taking the test.

About a week prior to the testing window, send a confirmation email to the school principal. In this email, ask what your child will be allowed or not allowed to do during testing. We found this differs with schools and even with teachers within the schools. Most of the time, children will be allowed to read. You may also wish to hold your child out of school on test days. This could impact truancy reports, so be sure you speak to your child’s school about the impact of this decision. One parent who refused all tests was happy to keep her children home on testing days, knowing that if the school or state tried to punish her child for this decision, it would make a great news story.

If teachers, principals, or district leaders tell you can’t “opt out” because it hurts the school or district, you might share this with them:

There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

See, no big deal. Except, well, Penny Schwinn wants to make it a big deal. Just like the previous Commissioner of Education wanted to make it a big deal.

Save our Schools offers some additional background:

The 2015-2016 school year was the first year for online testing, and it was a dismal failure. Measurement Inc.’s MIST testing platform frequently crashed due to a severe network outage. Quick scores were waived from being counted in student grades. The roll out of the new standards aligned with the TNReady test was delayed for a year when the legislature outlawed PARCC testing. As a result, the TDOE signed a $108M contract with Measurement Inc. using AIR as its subcontractor. AIR is affiliated with the Smarter Balanced test, a competitor to Pearson’s PARCC assessment.

On May 16, 2016, Candice McQueen sent out a letter to superintendents announcing the termination of the Measurement, Inc. contract on April 27, 2016. The immediate termination of Measurement, Inc. forced TDOE to spend yet more money on testing and execute an emergency contract with Pearson to score and report 2015-2016 assessments. The state hired a new test vendor, Questar Assessment, Inc., which received a $60M contract for 2 years. In June 2017, Measurement Inc. filed a $25.3M lawsuit against TDOE.

During the 2016-2017 school year, testing finally aligned with the new state standards for the first time, and TCAP was renamed TNReady. Due to prior failures, online testing was abandoned, and the TDOE returned to paper tests. However, there were still problems. Questar incorrectly scored almost 10,000 tests, which affected 70 schools in 33 districts. Quick scores were once again waived from being counted in student grades.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the TDOE attempted online testing again, and it was a complete disaster. Testing was abruptly cancelled midstream due to widespread technical problems. TDOE blamed an outside “deliberate attack” and a dump truck for the outages. Later, TDOE recanted and said that Questar was at fault. An attempt to print paper tests was initiated but soon scrapped, and testing was cancelled for the year.

The bottom line:

TNReady testing has been a disaster. Even before the pandemic. No matter who the vendor has been or how has held the title of Commissioner of Education. The results this year will likely yield almost no actionable information due to the overall disruption caused by COVID-19. And, what happens even in “good years” of testing?

The test is a demonstration of poverty – both among students and among districts:

An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.

Much attention was focused on Tennessee and our “rapid gains” on the NAEP. Less celebrated by state officials was the attendant expansion of the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

One possible explanation for the expanding achievement gap is the investment gap among districts. That is, those districts with lower levels of poverty (the ones scoring higher on TCAP) also tend to invest funds in their schools well above what the state funding formula (BEP) generates. The top ten districts on TCAP performance spend 20% or more above what the BEP formula generates. By contrast, the bottom 10 districts spend 5% or less above the formula dollars.

It’s no accident that the districts that spend more are those with less poverty while the districts with less investment above the BEP have higher poverty levels. And, I’ve written recently about the flaws in the present BEP system that signal it is well past time to reform the formula and increase investment.

Of further interest is an analysis of 3-year ACT averages. Here again, 9 of the top 10 districts on ACT performance spend well above the state average in per pupil spending. The top 10 districts in ACT average spend an average of $900 more per student than the state’s average per pupil expenditure.

Opting out is up to you, of course. But, it’s definitely possible. Refer to Save our Schools for the guidance you need to make that happen.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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