A Testing Lesson for Tennessee

As Tennessee continues to grapple with the failures of TNReady, this message from the former Superintendent of Camden, New Jersey Schools is especially relevant.

Essentially, he says the drawbacks of our current emphasis on testing outweigh the benefits. Here are some key points he makes:

We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized. We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education, because we’ve placed most of our eggs in two baskets. We are implicitly encouraging schools to serve fewer English language learners and students with an IEP. We are spending less time on actual instruction, because that’s the system we’ve created.

On what he heard while the system’s school report card including a heavy focus on math and ELA scores:

  • One of our very best eighth-grade math teachers tells me: “All I’m doing is collecting formative assessment data. Multiple times per month. I hardly have the time to analyze the data. Can we please just slow down the rapid assessment calendar?”

  •  In just about every high school student roundtable we held – and this is a self-selected, highly motivated group – a student would ask: “Superintendent, I love a good test, but all we’re doing is taking these multiple choice tests! Half the building shuts down and I can’t use the laptops in the library because they’re all being used for testing.”

  •  Questions I was asked by countless parents of middle and high school students: “How come there isn’t enough time in the day for Global Studies? Why don’t we offer a second foreign language? Or have year-round art and music?”

 

Unfortunately, much of this sounds very familiar to Tennessee teachers, students, and parents.

There are some proposes solutions, too:

First, high-stakes testing should be a dipstick to measure systems. Most of the rest of the developed world functions this way.

States could administer standardized tests like NAEP – meaning random samplings every two to three years. This would suffice. We would know the gaps. We could address inequities.

Third, we must build smarter tests. Tests, that, for example, address current challenges with race and class bias. In Louisiana, State Superintendent John White has piloted an innovative new state assessment that uses passages from books that students have already been exposed to in class, as opposed to something that’s brand new and just for the test.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tests should inform and guide our actions, and not compel them. This may sound like shades of grey, but it’s an important distinction. We need talented, thoughtful systems leaders who act with urgency, but don’t assume simple proficiency and growth scores in two subjects should immediately require structural change leading to seas of collateral damage and unintended consequences.

While the current administration has been heavily resistant to meaningful change, there’s a new Governor coming into office in January and he’ll be joined by a General Assembly with a slew of new members. This is a perfect opportunity to push for real change in our approach to testing. Not marginal change. REAL change.

Step one would be to ensure we have a Commissioner of Education committed to moving beyond the current status quo of failed testing. That means ditching Candice McQueen immediately.

Next, Tennessee should explore an ESSA waiver to move toward a new testing model.

Several school districts and the state’s PTA are asking for a range of options on tests. Bill Lee and his team should talk with them and with teachers and pave a path forward that takes us away from excessive testing.

The time to act is now. We’ve seen TNReady fail time and again. We know that even if it “worked,” the drawbacks to our test-focused school days far outweigh the benefits. We can have both real accountability and increased instruction time with a more balanced, student-centered approach to testing.

We have to ask: Do we care about what’s good for kids or do we want numbers and data to make us feel better? If we care about kids, we’ll move in a new direction as quickly as possible.

 

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Policy Shift

Tennessee’s next Governor, Bill Lee, is an unabashed voucher supporter.

As the General Assembly prepares to return in January, it will be important for policymakers to focus on what gets results instead of what the new Governor thinks is the cool new thing for Tennessee schools.

Derek Black, who teaches law at the University of South Carolina and focuses on education policy issues, points out some flaws in arguments in favor of “school choice” in a recent column in Salon.

His argument is essentially that a lack of accountability in many choice programs combined with the financial strain they put on traditional K-12 schools has a devastating impact and must be re-examined:

The current debate over school funding must move beyond teacher salaries and whether the books in public schools are tattered. Those conversations ignore the systematic policies that disadvantage public schools. Increasing public school teachers’ salaries alone won’t fix the problem. The public school teaching force has already shrunk. Class sizes have already risen. And the rules that advantage charter and private schools remain firmly in place.

Long-term solutions require a reexamination of these preferences. As a state constitutional matter, the law requires that states make public education their first priority. It is not enough to make education one of several competing priorities. And as a practical matter, states cannot continue to ask public schools to work with whatever is left over and then criticize them for doing a poor job. This cycle creates a circular justification for dismantling public education when states should be repairing it.

Black’s analysis is especially relevant in a state that consistently brings up the rear in investment in education and also continues to lag behind in overall student achievement.

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


 

Frogge on Martha O’Bryan, Charters

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge talks about the Martha O’Bryan Center:

The Martha O’Bryan Center, led by Marsha Edwards of Brentwood, TN, “has rapidly transformed its focus from providing safety net services for the poor to growing its network of charter schools for more affluent families.”

“Martha O’Bryan was founded in 1951 to combat poverty issues.” Historically, the nonprofit has helped families with rent payments and utility bills, operated employment and tutoring programs, and provided a daycare. However, the non-profit seems to have lost focus on its mission in recent years.

Why? The non-profit has been operating in the red for the last couple of years, and “[t]he move to charter schools created a steady revenue stream. Unlike its other programs, which are dependent on fundraising and grants, charter schools come with a built-in revenue stream in the form of tax dollars from the state and local government that are attached to every student who enrolls.”

In 2016, Marsha Edwards illegally coordinated with Stand for Children during our school board elections, in violation of federal law. (“Federal tax law strictly forbids nonprofits like the Martha O’Bryan Center from getting involved, ‘directly or indirectly,’ in elections.”) Edwards sought to remove some school board members (including me) from the board.

In another questionable deal, MDHA selected “Martha O’Bryan as its partner for the charter school [as part of the Envision Cayce overhaul] without a formal bidding process, even though East Nashville has several charter school operators.” Martha O’Bryan will receive $28 million for this project, while our other district schools struggle. This was a back-room deal. The school board had no say in this agreement. Although we have no need for more charters in East Nashville, which is oversaturated with schools, Martha O’Bryan will open yet another charter there. Ironically, it’s located right next door to a charter school operated by KIPP, causing friction among charter proponents who have long argued for more “competition” between schools.

“Former employees [of Martha O’Bryan] say the increased emphasis on charter schools has come at the expense of other programs and damaged the Martha O’Bryan Center’s standing in the neighborhood it has served for so long. . . . [F]ormer staffers say . . . the center cut core programs and workers were laid off or resigned, some after decades of employment.”

“’The mission and vision that was promoted, it was not the mission and vision anymore,’ said Nina Lockert, who ran the child care center at the time of its closing. Lockert said parents felt disconnected from the nonprofit and viewed it as ‘not actually benefiting the community it was in.'”

Follow the money.

MORE>

 

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


 

Aspire Lower?

From Diane Ravitch’s blog:

The Aspire charter chain in Memphis is in trouble and debating its future.This is one of billionaire Reed Hastings’ investments, and it is not faring well.

Facing a roughly $2 million operating deficit and lagging academic progress, a California-based charter organization that runs four schools in Memphis is reconsidering its future in the city — even floating the possibility of pulling out of the area altogether.

At a public meeting on Friday, Aspire’s national board discussed with its Memphis staff four possible scenarios for moving forward. Board chair Jonathan Garfinkel said that changes are anticipated, given the budget deficit and the fact that academic “results have not been what we’ve hoped.”

As a result, Aspire could cease to oversee its four Memphis schools, which serve some 1,600 students in total. This wouldn’t mean the schools would close…

READ MORE about the future of Aspire in Memphis

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


 

 

TN PTA on Testing

As Governor-elect Bill Lee prepares to take office, the Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA) outlines a position on state assessments, including calling for flexibility at the high school level to choose tests outside the TNReady framework.

Here’s the full position statement as adopted on November 3rd:

After continued problems with the electronic administration of standardized tests, the Tennessee PTA board of managers calls for the Tennessee Department of Education to establish reliable administration of online tests through proven piloted or implemented testing methods and platforms that do not impede the learning environment of students and educators.

 

The Tennessee PTA board of managers believes in testing accountability; however, missed class time and the lack of new material not introduced is a deterrent to student achievement and to the social emotional well-being of students and educators. We continue to support and educate parents to advocate for their children to be successful in school and in life.

 

The Tennessee PTA board of managers:

• Believes that high-quality assessments provide valuable information to parents, teachers, community and school leaders about the growth and achievement of their students.

• Considers that a test should be one of multiple tools used in a comprehensive assessment system to evaluate and assess student growth and learning.

• Believes the current methods in grades 3-8 TCAP and high school EOC (End-ofCourse) assessments as administered causes loss of quality instruction time in the classroom.

• Calls for the Tennessee Department of Education to establish an annual assessment that is aligned with relevant and rigorous state standards in English/Language Arts (ELA), Math, Science, and Social Studies. These assessments should also be aligned to multiple tools that elicit timely feedback to be shared with the students, educators, and parents.

• Believes it is important to keep the testing window narrow enough to ensure all Tennessee students are adequately assessed in a timely manner.

• Believes that school districts should have the flexibility to choose high school standardized assessments that align with the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks and meet Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) criteria for determining students to be college and career-ready.

 

The Tennessee PTA board of managers acknowledges the effort of the Tennessee Department of Education’s Third Task Force on Student Testing and Assessment, and is confident that with a collaborative and transparent process the Tennessee Department of Education will regain the trust and support of students, educators and parents.

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


 

McQueen’s Bag of Tricks

Halloween is a great time to look back on 2018 and reflect on all the nasty tricks played on Tennessee schools by Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen.

Here we go!

Nullification Crisis:

If you find out, as Mike did, that including the scores may have an undesirable impact, you have the option of nullifying your entire LOE — in fact, even if the score is good, if TNReady makes up any part of your overall LOE, you have the nullification option. Here’s more from Mike on that:

What immediately struck me is that all three of these options include my students’ growth on a flawed test that, by law, isn’t supposed to hurt me if last year’s test results are included, which they are. My overall L.O.E. score is a 4 out of 5, which still isn’t too bad, but the previous three years it has been a 5 out of 5. This means that the TNReady scores are, in fact, hurting my L.O.E. So what do I do now?

As the president of the Coffee County Education Association, I received the following message from TEA today that I quickly forwarded to my members: “To comply with the [hold harmless] legislation, teachers and principals who have 2017-18 TNReady data included in their LOE may choose to nullify their entire evaluation score (LOE) for the 2017-18 school year at their discretion. An educator’s decision to nullify the LOE can be made independently or in consultation with his/her evaluator during the evaluation summative conference. Nullification is completed by the educator in the TNCompass platform. The deadline for an educator to nullify his/her LOE is midnight CT on Nov. 30.”

TVAAS Driving Teachers Crazy:

To summarize, Tennessee is claiming success off of one particularly positive year on NAEP and on TNReady scores that are consistently unreliable. Then, Tennessee’s Education Commissioner is suggesting the “key driver” to all this success is a highly flawed evaluation system a significant portion of which is based on junk science.

Deleted:

Also, note that student projections are being updated based on the 2017-18 scores.

What?

The 2017-18 test was plagued by hackers, dump trucks, and mixed up tests. Still, the TDOE plans to use that data to update student projections. These projections will then be used to assign value-added scores going forward.

That’s one hell of an adverse impact. Or, it could be. It really depends on how the 2017-18 scores impact the projected performance of given students.

Edu-Dystopia:

Anyway, after this year’s blame the teachers portfolio event, the state finally agreed to review portfolios and re-score them. In fact, the state offered $500 each to reviewers who would meet at centralized locations and on a single day (September 8th) to assess the portfolios in question. This would allow for immediate feedback and assistance should problems arise.

The good news: No assistance was necessary because problems didn’t arise during the scoring.

The bad news: That’s because there was no scoring as the state’s vendor, Educopia, could not provide access to the portfolios in order for them to be graded.

Graphs!

Tennessee is near the bottom. The data shows we’re not improving. At least not faster than other states. I’ve written about how we’re not the fastest-improving in teacher pay, in spite of Bill Haslam’s promise to make it so:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

 

Battle Lines:

Last week, the School Superintendents in Memphis and Nashville wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen calling for a pause in TNReady. The letter indicated the leaders had “no confidence” in TNReady. Following the letter, the Knox County School Board voted 8-1 to send a letter to Governor Haslam stating they had “no confidence” in the Department of Education. Later that week, the Director of Schools in Maury County said he agreed with the idea of pausing TNReady and suggested moving to the ACT suite of assessments.

Today, Commissioner McQueen issued a response. According to Chalkbeat, her response indicates that pausing TNReady would be “illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

User Error

Dear Teachers,

It’s your fault.

It always is.

That’s essentially the sentiment expressed by the Tennessee Department of Education led by Candice McQueen after the latest round of problems, this time with portfolio evaluation of Pre-K/Kindergarten teachers.

 

Pack of Lies:

If this year had been the first time our state had faced testing challenges, one might understand (and forgive) the excuse-making. However, this is now the fifth consecutive year of some sort of problem and the fourth year testing administration has been, to say the least, a challenge.

One may recall the saga of Measurement, Inc. The company that hired test graders from Craigslist and was ultimately fired in 2016 after that year’s TNReady test failed.

The bottom line: If TNEdu tells you something about testing, you should question it. The track record shows that to our state’s Department of Education, truth is a relative concept.

 

Happy Halloween! 

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


 

Perspective: Dean and Lee on Charters and Vouchers

Retired educator Dr. Bill Smith offers some perspective on charters and vouchers as they relate to the Tennessee Governor’s race in a column he wrote for the Johnson City Press.

Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

When I read “Profit before Kids,” I wondered if our next governor will look closely at the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County, a charter that is operated by K12 Inc. If our state’s lawmakers are genuinely opposed to taxpayer dollars being funneled to for-profit educational entities, the findings reported in “Profit before Kids” should raise some concerns.

It’s no secret that non-profit charter schools often divert money intended for children’s instruction to other priorities. For example, many charters compensate their “CEOs” two to three times the salaries of principals who perform the same functions in regular public schools. Vision Academy in Nashville pays its two top executives (a married couple) a combined $562,000, while reportedly charging students for textbooks. (Imagine the outcry if a local public school engaged in such financial behavior.)

A Call to Action:

In this time of hyper-partisanship and extreme contentiousness over issues such as immigration and tax policy, the dangers of school choice are not going to attract the attention of most citizens until Democrats stand forcefully united against it. If they don’t, I’m afraid we will wake up one day and realize that what David Faris called the Republicans’ “slow-moving hostile takeover” of our educational system has been accomplished.

With one week to go before Election Day, this column is worth a read.

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


 

Nullification

Remember when the Tennessee General Assembly first past “hold harmless” legislation and then added “no adverse action” language so that TNReady scores from another failed administration would not negatively impact students, teachers, or schools?

It turns out, the return of TVAAS scores may in fact result in some adverse actions. I’ve reported on how the incorporation of TVAAS scores based on this year’s TNReady test into overall student growth projections could have lasting, negative impacts on teachers.

Now, Coffee County educator Mike Stein has a blog post up about this year’s TVAAS scores and a teacher’s Level of Effectiveness (LOE).

Here are a couple key takeaways:

Today is Thursday, October 25th and, as of today, I am 29% of the way into the school year. This afternoon, I received my overall teacher evaluation score from last school year (called the “level of effectiveness,” or L.O.E. for short). I have some major issues with how all of this is playing out.

To begin with, why am I just now finding out how well I did last school year? Teachers often times use the summer to make any kind of major adjustments to their curriculum and to their teaching strategies. It’s quite difficult to make changes in the middle of a unit in the middle of the second grading period–a situation where most teachers will find themselves right now. I remember a time not so long ago when teachers knew their L.O.E. by the end of the school year. Since the state’s implementation of TNReady, that hasn’t happened.

If I were a principal, I’m also upset about the timing of the release of the L.O.E. scores. They shouldn’t have to wait this long into the school year before finding out who their effective and ineffective teachers were last year. Part of their job is to help the ineffective teachers get back on track. Granted, a good principal will probably already know who these teachers are, but nothing can be made official until the L.O.E. scores are released. These scores are also used to determine whether teachers are rehired the following school year and if teachers will be granted tenure. Personnel decisions should be made over the summer, and the late release of these teacher effectiveness scores is not helpful in the least.

NULLIFY

If you find out, as Mike did, that including the scores may have an undesirable impact, you have the option of nullifying your entire LOE — in fact, even if the score is good, if TNReady makes up any part of your overall LOE, you have the nullification option. Here’s more from Mike on that:

What immediately struck me is that all three of these options include my students’ growth on a flawed test that, by law, isn’t supposed to hurt me if last year’s test results are included, which they are. My overall L.O.E. score is a 4 out of 5, which still isn’t too bad, but the previous three years it has been a 5 out of 5. This means that the TNReady scores are, in fact, hurting my L.O.E. So what do I do now?

As the president of the Coffee County Education Association, I received the following message from TEA today that I quickly forwarded to my members: “To comply with the [hold harmless] legislation, teachers and principals who have 2017-18 TNReady data included in their LOE may choose to nullify their entire evaluation score (LOE) for the 2017-18 school year at their discretion. An educator’s decision to nullify the LOE can be made independently or in consultation with his/her evaluator during the evaluation summative conference. Nullification is completed by the educator in the TNCompass platform. The deadline for an educator to nullify his/her LOE is midnight CT on Nov. 30.”

In addition to the valid concerns Mike raises, I’ve heard from teachers in several districts noting mistakes in the LOE number. These may result from including TVAAS data in a way that negatively impacts a teacher or using the incorrect option when it comes to factoring in scores. It is my understanding that several districts have alerted TDOE of these errors and are awaiting a response.

One key question is: What happens if you nullify your scores, and therefore have no LOE this year? Here’s an answer from TDOE:

Educators who choose to nullify their 2017-18 LOE may still be able to earn Professional Development Points (PDPs). Educators who choose to nullify their 2017-18 LOE may use their 2016-17 score to earn applicable PDPs;

So, PDPs are covered if you nullify. Great.

For educators who nullify their 2017-18 LOE, the number of observations required in 2018- 19 will be calculated based on 2016-17 data in conjunction with the educator’s current license type.

Looks like classroom observations have also been covered.

If a teacher chooses to nullify his or her 2017-18, LOE he or she may still become eligible for tenure this year. Pursuant to T.C.A. § 49-5-503(4), “a teacher who has met all other requirements for tenure eligibility but has not acquired an official evaluation score during the last one (1) or two (2) years of the probationary period due to an approved extended leave; transfer to another school or position within the school district; or invalidated data due to a successful local level evaluation grievance pursuant to § 49-1-302(d)(2)(A) may utilize the most recent two (2) years of available evaluation scores achieved during the probationary period.”

The bottom line: If you do nullify (and many are in situations where that’s a good idea), there should be no future adverse impact according to TDOE’s guidance.

The larger issue, in my view, is the one Mike raises: It’s pretty late in the year to be returning evaluation feedback to teachers and principals. The LOE determines the number of observations a teacher is to have (which impacts principal workload). It could, as Mike indicates, also point to areas for improvement or teachers who need additional support. But providing those numbers well into the school year significantly reduces the opportunity for meaningful action on those fronts.

Despite all these stubborn facts, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education points to the teacher evaluation process a “key driver” of our state’s education success.

It seems highly unlikely a process this flawed is making much of a positive impact on teachers and schools.

 

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

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Coffee County Pushes for Testing Options

Coffee County joins a growing list of school districts calling on the state to allow for alternatives to TNReady in the wake of years of disastrous test administration.

The Manchester Times reports:

Following two years of log-in problems and failed testing processes with the state’s mandatory testing apparatus TNReady (which administers the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program), Coffee County Schools issued a vote of no confidence and implored the Tennessee General Assembly and the Tennessee Department of Education to choose what assessment they give to students.

Specifically, the resolution notes:

Because of this, paired with the continuous shortfalls of TNReady, the board moved to accept the resolution, which states, “The Coffee County Board of Education implores the Tennessee General Assembly and the Tennessee Department of Education to allow school districts the opportunity to select either the math, science, and English language arts assessments provided by the State of Tennessee or an English, science, or math test that is part of the suites of standardized assessments available from either ACT or SAT.”

While districts across the state are calling for flexibility, today, students around the state acted as testing guinea pigs, testing the TNReady testing platform, supposedly updated after last year’s fiasco.

Of course, the state is also seeking yet another testing vendor after problems with both Measurement, Inc. and Questar.

It’s worth noting that this year’s testing of the TNReady test before the test is given would not be necessary at all had the state heeded the pleas from district leaders and hit pause this year.

 

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