Changing the “Culture of Testing”

An article by Rebecca Horvath appeared recently in the Johnson City Press and focused on this year’s TNReady debacle. Horvath suggests a “culture of testing” dictates policy that doesn’t serve our students or teachers well.

Here’s a bit of what she has to say:

Nearby middle schoolers were faced with low-powered computers that had to be charged before their tests could begin. Then, they spent two hours trying to submit their tests via the crashed state site, through their lunch time, only to have to return after a late lunch and submit them. (Teachers are not allowed to submit them.) Some students waited 90 minutes for the first part of their test to be submitted online so they could continue with the second part. Can you imagine the stress and frustration for students and teachers?

So, students across the state have spent the entire school year preparing for these tests – the curriculum is designed around them – hearing about how important they are, even having the very school calendar based on testing dates, only to encounter problems immediately.

Every hour lost to testing difficulties is wasting tax dollars, increasing the already heavy stress on teachers and frustrating students and parents.

What, exactly, is the purpose here?

Having a way to assess student progress and success is important, of course. We have to be able to see what areas need improvement and what our schools do well. Standardized tests have been around for a long time, but the pressure and the culture that permeates the entire educational system is new. But tests should be tools, not weapons.

 

As I’ve written before, we keep moving forward with testing despite years of problems.

It’s also worth noting that the threat of financial penalties is essentially an empty one — unless the state absolutely insists on withholding money from schools for problems the state caused. There’s almost no chance any federal funds would be lost. I’d suggest local districts stand up and push back more aggressively.

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

Got a story idea or a column to submit? Email me at andy@tnedreport.com


 

About that Dump Truck

Was it really a dump truck that caused TNReady trouble last week? It seems likely (as many suspected at the time) the answer is “NO.”

Chalkbeat has more:

The troubles that at least two Tennessee school districts had connecting to the state’s online testing system last week were not related to a slashed fiber optic cable, the internet provider says.

State Department of Education officials blamed testing problems last Thursday on a fiber optic cable that had been severed by a dump truck in East Tennessee. That cable cut, officials said, resulted in slowed connectivity for students in some districts, while other school systems could not connect at all.

Still, the Tennessee Department of Education continues a pattern of excuse-making:

“There is no evidence this was anything other than a side effect of the issue with the fiber cut, but we continue to look into it,” Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said last week.

But internet provider Education Networks of America disputes that, saying that the West Tennessee issues were not related to the cable cut.

What happened in those cases remains a mystery, for now.

Meanwhile, despite thousands of students in districts across the state experiencing login and submission problems and testing being delayed or suspended on multiple days, the testing continues. There’s also still the question of just how many students received the wrong test and what all of this does to the testing environment.

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


 

Frogge on the MNPS Budget

Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge yesterday outlined some concerns she has as the school system’s proposed budget faces tough choices ahead:

MNPS will receive a $5 million increase this year, rather than the $45 million increase requested by the board. Mayor Briley is doing his best with limited funding, as this article explains, but there just isn’t enough money to go around.

For the first time in my school board career, I voted against a budget proposal. After weeks of receiving conflicting and inaccurate information from the administration, I lost trust in the budget process. The administration still will not answer many of my questions, which is unacceptable.

So where will the cuts come from?

They will not come from the charter sector. Under state law, charters must be paid, so the $5 million increase must first go toward the $14 million increase in charter school costs this year. While other schools may suffer, charter schools will remain fully funded.

Cuts are not likely to be made at the top levels of administration. While cutting paper from classrooms and proposing to cut seven social workers from schools, Dr. Joseph pushed for a pay raise for himself and his top administrators. In the wake of the budget shortfall, he chose to keep his personal chauffeur. Dr. Joseph also pushed to pay friends brought to Nashville extra, unexplained stipends and high salaries off the pay scale.

Under the current budget proposal, Dr. Joseph will earn $346,000 next year. This amount includes his salary plus vacation days and deferred compensation, but doesn’t include his benefits or any consulting fees that he may earn per his contract. (The administration will not disclose how much MNPS employees are earning in consulting fees, even though I have repeatedly requested this information.) Dr. Joseph has added top level administrators and will pay four of his five Chiefs $190,000 each next year. (The fifth earns approximately $170,000.) To provide context for these salaries, Dr. Register earned $266,000 per year and paid his top administrators $155,000 each. Jay Steele, who earned $155,000, was alone performing the same job that now is fulfilled by two Chiefs, each earning $190,000.

Cuts are also not likely to come from consultants. The year before Dr. Joseph and his team arrived, the district paid outside consultants approximately $5 million dollars. Next year, it appears the district will pay consultants somewhere in the range of $14 million to $30 million. Again, I can’t get a straight answer from this administration on proposed consultant costs, so this is my best guess. What’s clear is that consultant costs have increased substantially under this administration, which begs the question: Why must we pay outsiders so much to guide the district’s work while also increasing salaries for those already paid to lead the district? Do our current leaders not have the necessary expertise? When they were brought to Nashville, they were certainly billed as experts deserving of higher salaries.

Some of the cuts will surely come from Dr. Joseph’s firing of nearly 100 Reading Recovery teachers. Although Dr. Joseph promised a plan to “repurpose” these teachers, it’s become clear that there is no such plan, and in fact, schools don’t have any money in their budgets to re-hire these teachers. There are also limited positions available for these teachers. So ultimately, it’s most likely that our very best and most highly trained literacy teachers will leave. Many are already retiring or headed to other districts. Despite an ongoing teacher shortage, this doesn’t seem to bother Dr. Joseph and his team, who were actually caught celebrating the firing of these literacy experts after our board meeting.

Finally, the $27.2 million increase requested for employee compensation, including pay raises and step increases, seems impossible now.

This budget season has been a disaster- unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope the Metro Council is prepared to ask the hard questions.

 

A few comments:

First, the reason Mayor Briley is having a tough budget season is because the two previous mayors (with approval from Metro Council) spent heavily from reserve funds to balance budgets. Now, that savings account is depleted and absent new revenue, there’s just not any extra money. Yes, Metro Council needs to ask tough questions of the school budget, but they should also be asking questions about how Nashville got here.

Second, as Frogge notes, it seems likely that two things will happen: Some teachers will lose their jobs and there will be no raises. Both are incredibly problematic. Nashville is experiencing a teacher shortage that has resulted in a shift toward what I’ve called “virtual equality.” Nashville teachers are already underpaid, and not giving raises would only exacerbate this problem.

Third, one reason the MNPS budget is facing problems is a “surprising” drop in students. Somehow, this drop was both unanticipated and created a budget emergency this year.

By way of her post, Frogge points out some possible alternatives. It’s up to the School Board to make a proposal to the Metro Council based on these new numbers. The revisions Dr. Joseph proposes to the MNPS Board will say a lot about his priorities. Metro Council can’t revise the school system’s budget, they can only vote it up or down. However, a budget document that doesn’t address the concerns Frogge raises should be rejected and sent back to MNPS for improvement.

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

Keep the education news coming!

 

WRONG: Another TNReady Story

Today’s TNReady story is a tale of the wrong test.

Reports from multiple districts indicate that students have been given tests for the wrong grade level today, particularly in ELA.

This was reported some last week, as well, with the biggest instance noted in Anderson County.

In an update to parents last week, Williamson County noted this type of testing mix-up had happened there as well.

Even when there’s not a widespread outage, as has happened due to dump trucks and hackers, there are problems with the execution of this test.

As Chalkbeat reports, the problem with yesterday’s test (not blamed on aliens, surprisingly) means the text-to-speech feature is turned off today. That means students requiring this feature will not be able to test:

Districts were told late in the day that the culprit was traced to a feature allowing text to be turned into speech for students needing audible commands.

“The problems presented by this feature impact the system for districts across the state, regardless of how many of your students are using text-to-speech,” said an email to superintendents from the state Department of Education.

No word on when students needing this feature will be able to test.

As I said yesterday, it’s amazing to me that this test has not been stopped. When will our Department of Education put students first?

 

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

Keep the education news coming!


 

 

Enough Already

Today, amid another round of testing problems, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney tweeted:

Testing Update: TnReady testing challenges persist this morning. This has been the worst state testing process I have ever seen and it’s beyond ridiculous! Nevertheless, I am proud of WCS students and teachers for handling this with grace.

We’re now in the third week of the TNReady testing window and we’ve seen problems of some sort on a majority of those days. In fact, last week, Williamson County posted a list of TNReady problems by day:

Monday, April 16: Login problems affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Tuesday, April 17: Login problems affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Wednesday, April 18: WCS suspended testing to give the TDOE time to correct problems.

Thursday, April 19: Login problems affecting approximately 1,000 students.

Friday, April 20: No significant issues reported.

Monday, April 23: No significant issues reported.

Tuesday, April 24: System defaults caused 100+ students to take the wrong grade level test.

Wednesday, April 25: Delays and canceled testing affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Thursday, April 26: System lockout affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Friday, April 27: No significant issues reported.

That’s just one district, and the problems have been reported by a number of districts large and small across the state.

The Department of Education has blamed the problems on mysterious forces such as hackers and dump trucks, but it seems clear testing vendor Questar is not quite prepared for the job Tennessee is paying them $30 million this year to do.

Oh, and sometimes students get the wrong test.

All of this has caused an outcry among students, parents, and teachers. While one legislator says all the “whiners” should just suck it up, the TNReady trouble this year has caused legislators to take matters into their own hands, passing bills on “holding harmless” and “adverse actions” in order to make clear these tests should not negatively impact teachers, students, or schools.

One might recall that before our state’s testing window started, there was a bit of a warning that trouble might be headed our way. Despite the signs of potential trouble, Questar and the TN DOE expressed confidence in TNReady:

State officials said Thursday they are confident the new digital platform will work under heavy traffic, even as their new testing vendor, Questar, had headaches administering computer-based tests in New York on Wednesday. Some students there struggled to log on and submit their exam responses — issues that Questar leaders blamed on a separate company providing the computer infrastructure that hosts the tests.

It seems that confidence was misplaced.

I’ve talked with testing coordinators who tell me districts will be testing all the way up until graduation. I heard today that even when the login and submission problems were “resolved,” some students returned to their computers only to be issued a test for a subject other than the one they had started earlier in the day.

Student answers have been deleted or lost. Because of the legislation passed at the end of legislative session, TNReady will likely not count in many student’s grades. Teachers and administrators report that whether the scores count or not, students have no confidence in the system and no longer take the test seriously.

Even today, as I began seeing reports of issues around the state, I realized that TNReady being down is no longer news, it’s the norm.

Of course, Tennessee has had some sort of problem with testing or test results for five years now, dating back to the last administration of TCAP.

Here’s what else I realized: This test will just keep going. No one will stop it. Governor Haslam has yet to seriously weigh-in and appears to be fully behind Commissioner McQueen despite years of testing failures. While Directors of Schools complain about the ridiculous excuses from DOE and poor execution from Questar, so far, no district has permanently suspended testing.

Representatives from the Department of Education told lawmakers last week that there will be some valid data from this administration of TNReady. They even said it with a straight face.

So, why won’t this stop? Will any district refuse to subject students to further testing in this environment? Who will finally stand up and say “Enough?”

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

Keep the education news coming by becoming a Patron!


 

 

BREAKING: Another Dump Truck Hits TNReady?!

Tennessee’s failed testing system, TNReady, is experiencing problems yet again. Last week, the Department of Education alleged a dump truck took out the test.

That was the latest in a line of testing challenges during this year’s administration of TNReady.

This morning, eleven systems so far are reporting login and/or submission problems with TNReady. Knox, Putnam, Campbell, Sequatchie, Rutherford,  Robertson, Williamson, Montgomery, Collierville, Sumner, and Cumberland have reported issues with the test today so far.

UPDATE: 9:59 AM — It appears the TNReady problems are widespread across the state. No word yet on what caused today’s outage.

STAY TUNED for more on this story.

 

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


 

Bump in the Road

While one Tennessee legislator refers to the TNReady trouble as a mere “Bump in the Road,” school districts around the state are stuck trying to pick up the pieces and move forward. Here’s an excerpt from a message to parents provided by Williamson County Schools with an outline of the challenges faced during TNReady testing so far:

On behalf of WCS, I want to apologize to you and your children for having to endure the State’s failed online testing program these past two weeks. We know that this has been difficult for everyone involved, and for that we are sorry.

State standardized testing has been required for decades in Tennessee. What has changed in the past few years is that the Tennessee Department of Education has been trying to transition to online testing. As many of you know, they have had massive difficulties with online administration of TNReady and high school End of Course exams (EOCs). These online problems have affected our grades 5-11.

Here’s a quick timeline of what our students and staff have undergone since State testing began last week:

Monday, April 16: Login problems affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Tuesday, April 17: Login problems affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Wednesday, April 18: WCS suspended testing to give the TDOE time to correct problems.

Thursday, April 19: Login problems affecting approximately 1,000 students.

Friday, April 20: No significant issues reported.

Monday, April 23: No significant issues reported.

Tuesday, April 24: System defaults caused 100+ students to take the wrong grade level test.

Wednesday, April 25: Delays and canceled testing affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Thursday, April 26: System lockout affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Friday, April 27: No significant issues reported.

That’s six days of problems over a two week testing period. Williamson County is now the third district (joining Knox and Anderson) to report students being given the wrong test.

This doesn’t look like a bump in the road, it looks like a huge mess. Thousands of students in just this one district have been impacted. Districts are now scheduling meetings to determine how to move forward in light of “hold harmless” and “adverse action” legislation.

Still, the Tennessee Department of Education insists that testing must keep going. A TDOE representative told House and Senate members this week that it was entirely possible to obtain valid data from this test administration.

We’ve supposedly had hackers and dump trucks running around trying to stop the test.

Still, Candice McQueen and her Department, backed by Governor Haslam, insist we simply MUST keep testing.

Why?

Whenever the idea of stopping testing is brought up, the state says we will lose federal money. Even this week, amid legislative wrangling on the issue, the final proposal was adopted as means of preserving compliance with federal law.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reported it:

The language in both bills seeks to keep Tennessee’s school accountability plan in compliance with a federal education law that requires states to include student performance in their teacher evaluation model — or risk losing federal funding for schools. Lawmakers also cited the state’s tenure rules in preserving the data.

So, what’s the real risk?

There isn’t one. If Tennessee stops testing this year and doesn’t include the data at all in teacher evaluation, we’d only be violating the plan we wrote, not some federal mandate. It was Tennessee’s ESSA plan that spelled out how our state planned to use data from testing. Certainly, a case can be made that testing didn’t go as planned this year, so we won’t use this year’s data.

Still, could we lose money?

No.

I mean, it’s not exactly THAT clear, but pretty much.

Here’s what I wrote on this topic back in 2016 (yes, we have testing problems all the time — as one person noted on Twitter, we’ve become the Cleveland Browns of state testing):

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.

And here’s more on how the federal Department of Education rarely withholds funds from states over testing or accountability issues:

  1. In 2015 more than 600,000 students opted out of state tests around the country, including 20% of all students in NYS, and 100,000 students in New Jersey and Colorado. Here in Illinois, more than 40,000 students opted out, including 10% of all CPS students eligible for the test. In 2016, as a district, CPS still did not make 95% participation, and more than 160 individual CPS schools also had <95% participation on PARCC last year. And in New York State in 2016, more than 9 out of 10 school districts had less than 95% participationNo state, district or school lost a single penny—despite threats throughout testing season every year since mass opt out began.  In fact, as mentioned above, no state or local educational agency has lost any funding for participation rates ever. And states have had participation below 95% in the past (particularly in demographic subgroups), even before the era of mass opt out campaigns.
  2. In 2015 the IL State Board of Education (ISBE) opted out the entire state from science testing. States must administer science testing by grade-span (i.e. once in 3-5th, once in 6-8th, once in high school). There was a 0% participation rate. No funding was lost. The US Department of Education (USED)’s response was described by the Chicago Tribune as a ‘crackdown‘. In fact, the ‘crackdown’ was a stern letter, informing the state that they needed to administer a science test the next year.

So, will we lose money because we tried to administer a test but experienced a series of unfortunate events?

No.

No we will not.

Still, the Tennessee Department of Education insists that our students, teachers, and schools persist.

Still, TDOE insists the data is somehow valid and useful.

The fact is, TNReady has not been. Not in 2016, not this year, not yet.

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

Keep the education news and analysis coming!


 

Whiners

Rep. Sabi Kumar has a message for students, parents, and teachers about the TNReady problems: Stop whining!

Yes, that’s what the Robertson County State Representative said in an email to an educator. The full email response is pictured below. Here’s the text where he responds directly about the testing issues this year:

I also ask a favor of you.

I ask that you and your colleagues rise to your calling as Educators and use this TN Ready Software Failure, that is being labeled a “Debacle” and a “Spectacular Failure”, as a Teaching Moment for your students.

I ask that you teach your students to treat this as a Bump in the Road and teach them how to handle Software Failures at home, or later, in their work space and in Life!

We do not want a child to learn that if they complain loud enough or cry in response to stress, life will get better. It is more important that they learn how to overcome stress and find solutions to problems in the Software of Life.

We want our students to be Winners Who Overcome Circumstances in Life and not whiners who complain. I do agree that each child has different needs and responses but our goal should be the same.

I admire you and your fellow Educators because you do so much for our children.

There is no successful adult who does not owe gratitude to that special teacher, or teachers, who helped shape us towards success in life.

So, Rep. Kumar ends his letter with kind-sounding words about teachers after suggesting that raising concerns about a testing system that has repeatedly failed students makes them “whiners.”

Kumar speaks of teaching children to find solutions to problems while simultaneously refusing to hold the Tennessee Department of Education accountable. He fails to mention that the voters of Robertson County send him to Nashville to help find solutions. Instead, he allows a multi-million dollar, multi-year testing failure to continue and implores those pointing that out to stop whining.

To students who have had schedules disrupted, test answers erased, and instructional time lost, Mr. Kumar says: stop complaining and don’t cry.

One thing he says is true: So far, in spite of the outcry from teachers, parents, and students, life in schools during TNReady is not getting any better. The testing marches on, the window is extended, the problems continue and those responsible are not held accountable.

Here’s an image of the email sent by Kumar:

Here’s how to contact Rep. Kumar.

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

Your support keeps the education news coming!


 

Weird Science

Last week, some parents suggested there was a problem with TNReady tests their children were taking. The students reported questions on material not covered or material not in their standards.

Now, it seems there may be an answer — at least when it comes to Science and Social Studies.

WBIR reports:

Over 900 TNReady Science and Social Studies test given to Anderson County student were from the wrong grade level, according to Director of Schools Tim Parrott.

Here’s the response from the Tennessee Department of Education:

“There was a poorly designed feature of the online testing system that contributed to some users accidentally administering a test to students that was below their grade level, including those at Norris Middle School. We’ve provided guidance to the district staff and the building testing coordinator to invalidate these tests. Students are not required to re-test, and their tests will not be scored. This means they will not count toward an educator’s evaluation nor will they factor into the scores we report for Norris Middle School. They will also not hurt the district’s or school’s participation rate.” – Tennessee Department of Education.

I’d suggest that the entirety of this year’s TNReady test has been a “poorly designed feature” of the Tennessee Department of Education and testing vendor Questar.

I’m interested in learning if this problem has popped up in other districts around the state. If you have something to report on this, email me: andy@tnedreport.com

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


 

What Is Normal?

It’s probably difficult to imagine a normal testing environment given the trouble Tennessee has had this year and in 2016. However, an administrator at a middle school offers some insight into what a “normal” testing schedule looks like:

The schedule includes seven different testing sessions to accommodate the eleven subtests required of middle school students.

With an average time on test of 45 minutes per subtest and an additional 40 minutes for ELA part 1, students are spending 8 hours and 55 minutes online.

Seven testing sessions means seven class transitions to the computer lab at five minutes each, plus at least five minutes to log on and go through directions. That is an additional hour and ten minutes lost teaching time.

So, in total middle school students are spending ten hours and five minutes on an online test that the state now says won’t count.  The school day is seven hours. Therefore, the state has robbed students of a day and a half of potential learning in the name of “testing what they know.”

This is what happens under “normal” circumstances. Of course, now there are the added factors of testing delays, suspension of test administration, and extended testing windows.

How long will the state continue a system that robs students of a day and a half of learning?

 

A couple of interesting comments:

Considering that many schools are only giving one subtest per day…some shools are taking nearly two and a half weeks to complete assessments. Also, if you take into account that a school day (7 hours in most places now) has other things like lunch, related arts, and class changes…instruction time is really in the five hour range. So, at minimum the assessment is taking two complete days of instruction. But even that is not the story. Where I live students in middle school are taking eight days over a three week period(T, W, TR) to complete assessments. Again, one subpart at a time. Due to the amount of time that it takes to set-up the lab or ready paper materials(counting every single item in the test admin room as it leaves, distributing in the classroom, counting every test item as it leaves the classroom, and then counting it again as it reaches the test admin office)…the process is much, much longer. Items that must be counted are state issued rulers, calculators, answer sheets, test booklets, scrap paper. It takes forever. Most schools begin w TNReady to start the day. So, basically it is like running school on a two hour delay snow day. Anyone know how much work gets done on snow delay days or early dismissals? Not much. Sorry for the long post. Now ask teachers how much time is spent on benchmarking and quarterly assessments, basically now testing to prepare for the test. I am willing to suggest that the number of days(not actual hours….just days where the instructional environment is disrupted) where teachers are having to give district, state, and federal assessments(think NAEP) is roughly 25-30 days per school year. Over 12 years, that is 360 days or roughly two years of a child’s instructional time from grades 1-12 where a local/state/federal assessment disrupts some portion of a student’s day. Now imagine how much more our children would learn if we got back all of that time accrued over 12 years that was lost to assessments.

AND:

At the high school where I work, we have testing the in AM and PM spread out over THREE WEEKS. That’s 3 weeks of altered daily schedules, 3 weeks of some but not all students missing a class because of testing, 3 weeks of students coming to my class surprised that we are actually doing work that day (because they are equating test taking time as a time for rest in all classes)(I can’t say I really blame them), and 3 weeks of students wondering when it will be over. Three weeks of this energy-sapping, soul sucking testing nonsense that doesn’t count for anything. Try making teenagers take it seriously. It’s a joke and they know it.

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

Your support keeps Tennessee Education Report going! Thank you!