Test Questions

A group of parents attempting to reduce the amount of standardized testing Tennessee students are subjected to each year is now raising questions about Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s testimony in defense of Common Core at a recent state Senate Education Committee hearing.

Huffman essentially admitted that TCAP is not a very strong test.  The parent group wants an explanation of why this weak test is being used to determine teacher licensure and possibly teacher pay.

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

A Tennessee Teacher Speaks Out

A Knox County teacher addresses her School Board and expresses the frustrations of many teachers in Tennessee.


The question: Is anyone listening? And, if so, will anything be done to bring about collaboration with and input from educators?

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


Memphis Makeover, Blogging Commissioner, and Drinks for Schools

Just a few quick hits today from education news around Tennessee.

While we tend to be Nashville-centric in many of our posts – either coverage of MNPS or state policy happenings in Nashville, Bluff City Ed offers an interesting look into the transformation of public schools in Memphis.

Now, back in Nashville, it seems the Commissioner of Education will now also be a blogger. Maybe this is how he intends to improve communication with all those Superintendents who aren’t happy with his leadership style.

Finally, over in Sumner County, Fox 17 has an interesting take on what turned out to be a fairly reasonable solution to a sticky tax problem.

20 Years of TVAAS has Told Us Almost Nothing

Valerie Strauss has an interesting piece over at the Washington Post dealing with Value-Added Modeling.  More specifically, the post analyzes what can be learned from 20 years of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) implemented as a result of the Education Improvement Act — the Act that created the Basic Education Program (Tennessee’s school funding formula, also known as BEP).

The promise of Value-Added Assessment was that we could learn a lot about which schools were working and which weren’t.  We could learn a lot about kids and how they were progressing.  We could even learn about teachers and how they were doing with all their students and with specific groups of students.  With all this information, Tennessee would intervene and take action that would move schools forward.

Unfortunately, that promise has not been delivered.  At all.

Here, I highlight the key takeaways from the Strauss piece.  Tennessee parents and policymakers should take note – TVAAS is taking up tax dollars and impacting teacher evaluations and it doesn’t really work all that well.

1. Using TVAAS masked persistently low proficiency rates.

The Tennessee value-added assessment model basically identified the schools that were already making required annual proficiency targets, but it failed to distinguish between schools with rising or declining proficiency scores.

In short, the Sanders Model did little to address the essential unfairness perpetuated by NCLB proficiency requirements, which insisted that those student further behind and with fewer resources than those in economically privileged schools had to work harder to reach the same proficiency point.  More importantly, there was no evidence that the Sanders version of value-added testing did anything to help or even predict the future outcomes for those furthest behind.


2. TVAAS is unstable and inappropriate for high-stakes decisions — like hiring and firing teachers, renewing licenses, or determining pay.

And despite the National Research Council and the National Academies’ flagging of value-added assessment as too unstable for high-stakes decisions in education …

…states like Tennessee rushed to implement a federally recommended system whereby value-added growth scores would come to dominate teacher evaluation for educators who teach tested subjects.  And contrary to the most basic notions of accountability and fairness, two-thirds of Tennessee teachers who teach non-tested subjects are being evaluated based on school-wide scores in their schools, rather than their own.

3. Continued use of TVAAS as an indicator of “success” leaves the most vulnerable students further and further behind.

In a 2009 Carnegie-funded report, Charles Barone points out that focus on value-added gains, or growth in test scores, may downplay the need for interventions to address low proficiency rates:  “Due to the projection toward proficiency being recalculated annually [in the TVAAS model], there is not necessarily a significant progression, over time toward proficiency . . . causing a delay of needed intervention at appropriate developmental times” (p. 8). So while showing academic progress, gain scores or growth scores easily mask the fact that minority and poor children are far below their well-heeled peers in becoming intellectually prepared for life and careers. And in masking the actual academic progress of the poor and minority students, the state (and the nation) is let off the hook for maintaining and supporting an adequate and equally accessible system of public education for all students. At the same time, politicians and ideologues can celebrate higher “progress rates” for poor and minority students who are, in fact, left further and further behind.

4. Tennessee has actually lost ground in terms of student achievement relative to other states since the implementation of TVAAS.

Tennessee received a D on K-12 achievement when compared to other states based on NAEP achievement levels and gains, poverty gaps, graduation rates, and Advanced Placement test scores (Quality Counts 2011, p. 46).  Educational progress made in other states on NAEP [from 1992 to 2011] lowered Tennessee’s rankings:

• from 36th/42 to 46th/52 in the nation in fourth-grade math[2]

• from 29th/42 to 42nd/52 in fourth-grade reading[3]

• from 35th/42 to 46th/52 in eighth-grade math

• from 25th/38 (1998) to 42nd/52 in eighth-grade reading.

5. TVAAS tells us almost nothing about teacher effectiveness.

While other states are making gains, Tennessee has remained stagnant or lost ground since 1992 — despite an increasingly heavy use of TVAAS data.

So, if TVAAS isn’t helping kids, it must be because Tennessee hasn’t been using it right, right? Wrong. While education policy makers in Tennessee continue to push the use of TVAAS for items such as teacher evaluation, teacher pay, and teacher license renewal, there is little evidence that value-added data effectively differentiates between the most and least effective teachers.

In fact, this analysis demonstrates that the difference between a value-added identified “great” teacher and a value-added identified “average” teacher is about $300 in earnings per year per student.  So, not that much at all.  Statistically speaking, we’d call that insignificant.  That’s not to say that teachers don’t impact students.  It IS to say that TVAAS data tells us very little about HOW teachers impact students.

Surprisingly, Tennessee has spent roughly $326 million on TVAAS and attendant assessment over the past 20 years. That’s $16 million a year on a system that is not yielding much useful information. Instead, TVAAS data has been used to mask a persistent performance gap between middle to upper income students and their lower-income peers.  Overall student achievement in Tennessee remains stagnant (which means we’re falling behind our neighboring states) while politicians and policy makers tout TVAAS-approved gains as a sure sign of progress.

In spite of mounting evidence contradicting the utility of TVAAS, Commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam announced last week they want to “improve” Tennessee teacher salaries along the lines of merit — and in their minds, TVAAS gains are a key determinant of teacher merit.

Perhaps 2014 will at least produce questions from the General Assembly about the state’s investment in an assessment system that has over 20 years yielded incredibly disappointing results.

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



PET Talks to Kevin Huffman

Professional Educators of Tennessee launched a new online journal today and it contains a wide-ranging interview with Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. The full interview can be viewed here.

I’ve got some excerpts and analysis below.

PET:  You started in your post about 3 or 4 months into Governor Haslam’s term, after Tennessee was already several months into the Race to the Top (RTTT) Grant Award and after the new evaluation system was put in place.  Yet, many people seem to tie you to the changes in teacher evaluation which was actually included in the 2010 RTTT Application.  Is that fair?

Huffman: Yes and no. No in the sense that we committed to implement the system (including 50% student achievement for all teachers) through the First to the Top legislation and then through the grant. My first week on the job, the advisory committee (TEAC) completed its work which included the selection of the TEAM rubric and the format for the observations, so that was all done by the time I came, and it isn’t accurate to say that I created it.

What set us apart from other states, though, is that we didn’t back down. Other states committed to do evaluation too, and many delayed by a year or two, or kicked the can even farther down the road, and we stayed the course. If that means that I am tied to the evaluation system, I accept that, because I think the system has made instruction better and helped kids learn more. One of the things I think people miss in the evaluation discussion is that the real value is not in anything punitive: it is in ensuring that real feedback and conversations about instruction happen across the state with a common language. And I think that has happened.

What’s missing, in my view, is the attendant professional development and early career support.  Early career teachers need mentoring and support.  Teach for America, where Huffman got his start, places a heavy emphasis on targeted coaching and mentoring in the first two years. Even if the evaluation process is on balance a good one (and there’s debate about that), it’s difficult to see how it improves instruction significantly without supports and targeted professional development being provided to teachers. 

PET:  What changes do we need to make in teacher evaluations?  And what should the state have done differently in retrospect?

Huffman: We made a bunch of changes after the first year, which I think made the system better and certainly made educators feel the system was better in the second year. I think we have to keep looking each year at how to improve it. A couple of things over the long haul that I think we need to keep looking at: 1) adjusting language each year on the rubric so that it effectively matches the observations with the standards teachers are teaching. I think we have done a little of this but we have to keep looking; 2) the whole “15% measure” for achievement still doesn’t seem to be going very well. Many teachers and schools don’t feel like it accurately reflects teachers’ impact, so I want to keep looking at this.

In retrospect, I think the biggest piece missing was training and communication for teachers well in advance of the rollout. I think some teachers got strong communication from local schools and districts and others did not, and the communication piece was insufficient from the state. A good example of that was the initial “planning” strand. Some teachers spent hours and hours and wrote 20-page lesson plan documents, which was never the intent. Better communication way back in early 2011 would have made a big difference.

The evaluation process is an ever-changing one — and that’s frustrating for teachers.  Every few months, it seems, something new is decided or added or taken away from the evaluation process. No one objects to a sound evaluation of their performance.  What’s problematic is the implementation.  Further, the 15% measure for achievement is becoming more, not less problematic.  In some systems, teachers are forced to choose an “Annual Measurable Objective” connected to English/Language Arts or Math.  Rather than owning their own students (in the case of AP teachers, for example) teachers are sometimes tied to students they’ve never taught.  The State Board document on the 15% provides a number of choices and ample flexibility.  Revisiting this issue with the input of teachers from across the state would be a welcome policy change.

PET:  In your opinion, what are the top three current challenges facing education in Tennessee?

Huffman: This is a tough one. 1) Helping students with disabilities reach their potential. We have a huge gap in achievement and we are really focused on this at the state level right now. 2) Early grades reading. We heard all summer from teachers that they need and want more support for teaching reading and for intervening with students who are far behind their peers. We are offering a course through our regional CORE offices to thousands of teachers on reading instruction, and I hope it will help. 3) Integrating all of the changes. We have done a lot in the last few years, and we now have new assessments coming. Our focus is not on more change – it is on how to manage all of the change effectively.
I’m very bullish on our ability to navigate these challenges though.

One clear way to improve early grades reading is by ensuring access to high quality Pre-K programs.  Both the Comptroller’s study and the Vanderbilt study of Pre-K indicate its ability to help improve reading in early grades.  Governor Haslam, however, has indicated he’s not in favor of expanding a program that is proven to work to address what the Commissioner of Education identifies as a top priority for our state.
PET:  Any final thoughts you would like to share with Tennessee educators?

Huffman: I am deeply grateful for your service. Every time I visit a school, I am struck by the professionalism and commitment of our educators, and our students are lucky to have you.

I’m sure it’s nice for educators to hear those words.  But, you can’t buy groceries with gratitude.  So far, there hasn’t been a real commitment to improving the pay and support for the educators the Commissioner identifies as both highly professional and deeply committed.  We heard a lot about how important teachers were to the gains noted on this year’s TCAP’s.  What hasn’t been heard is how compensation and support will be improved to ensure Tennessee is attracting and keeping strong educators.  To be clear, it’s not just better pay, but more support and more resources that teachers need.

EDIT: Today (10/3/13) at 3:00 PM Central Time Haslam and Huffman announced a goal to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state when it comes to teacher salaries.”

More Huffman: “Too often we try to use gratitude as a substitution for compensation.” — is he reading as I write?

And he notes, “Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 in terms of teacher compensation.”

It’s not clear what that means, exactly, but it should mean more than this.

And then, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh offers this response:

“Teachers in this state are overworked, underpaid, and deserve to be treated as professionals.

However, after listening to teachers across the state, we are increasingly convinced that Commissioner Huffman’s unproven, unreliable testing methods as a basis for teacher pay are hurting our public education system.

“….Basing teacher pay on scores, especially the scores of students they never teach, is going to further strain the system, lower morale, and detract from the progress we have made in Tennessee.”

For more on Tennessee education news, follow us @TNEdReport



Marshall County Joins the Revolution

We reported last week on Roane County’s School Board passing a resolution urging Gov. Haslam and the State Department of Education to slow down the pace of education reform, collaborate more with district leaders, and provide adequate funding to move schools forward.

Now, Marshall County is joining the fray.

It will be interesting to see how many districts pass similar resolutions before the start of the 2014 session of the General Assembly.

Even more telling will be how the respective legislative delegations respond.

Stay tuned to Tennessee Education Report and follow us @TNEdReport for more details.


Roane County Resolution

As I understand it, the Roane County School Board recently passed the resolution below. Basically, it says they like education reform in general, but that it is going too fast and the money coming to the district is not keeping pace with the mandates of reform.  It’s frustrating teachers and creating a negative climate.

I’m wondering if more districts will pass similar resolutions ahead of the 2014 session of the General Assembly.

Here’s the Resolution:



Whereas,  the Roane County Board of Education recognizes Governor Bill Haslam’s commitment to education and appreciates additional funds provided by the state and the efforts to raise the academic standards for our students, and

Whereas, the Roane County Board of Education strives to provide a quality education for every student of the county,

Whereas, Roane County’s teachers are diligent, motivated and capable, and

Whereas, teachers and administrators are frustrated by the time restraints placed upon them to implement mandated programs, and

Whereas, required additional funding is not provided for such mandated programs, and

Whereas, the system’s leaders welcome open dialogue with those on the local and state level concerning issues that impact education, and

Whereas, the concerns of the educators and system administrators are not being heard by the Commissioner of the State Department of Education.

Therefore, be it resolved that the Roane County Board of Education, on behalf of students, parents, teachers and administrators, ask the Governor and the General Assembly  to address the disconnect that currently exists with the State Department of Education.



____________________     _________                  __________________      _______

Chairman of the Board             Date                          Director of Schools           Date


For more Tennessee education news, follow us @TNEdReport

Have a Drink on Us

If you happen to be a young, hip, TFA-type teacher.  Non-TFA types not allowed.  The video says it’s an ASD event and the video clips appear to have been filmed inside classrooms.  It’s not clear who is paying for the event or why only TFA teachers are invited to attend.

Edit: ASD took down the video, but some nice people have added it to Youtube. 

Happy Hour Welcoming TFA Teachers from Achievement School District on Vimeo.

Expect more, but not too much more…

So, all the advocates of Common Core are part of the Expect More, Achieve More coalition.  I support the general principles of Common Core. The higher standards, the expectations, the value placed on critical thinking.

I’m carefully watching the implementation, however, as Tennessee’s track record of getting education right is well, missing.

That said, the State Department of Education has been talking a lot about expectations.  About being direct and honest with students and families about their achievement.  About what it takes to demonstrate content mastery.  About grade level appropriate learning progress.

All of which sounds good.  And, if done correctly, is good.

And then, I read that the Achievement School District has released a new grading scale for some of the K-8 schools in its control.

Here it is:

ASD Grades

And here’s the explanation from ASD.

Basically, they are aligning grades with TCAP cut scores.

Which means, you can receive a passing score in school and only demonstrate knowledge/mastery of 47% of content.

Also, there’s a huge range of scores for a B.

I’m not sure that if someone goes into the workforce and gets 59% of their work done well, they’ll have a job for very long.

And doesn’t this contradict the whole concept of high expectations?

And if these grades are aligned to TCAP cut scores, maybe we should strengthen the cut scores?

What about the students who “pass” their grade level with a 48? Really? Isn’t that setting them up to fail by telling them they “passed” even though they demonstrated mastery of less than half of the material?

It’s great to reward effort.  And nice to see students grow over a year.  But high expectations means high standards.

I’d expect to see stories soon about the ASD’s improved GPAs and promotion rate.

For more education policy news, follow us @TNEdReport

MNPS Talks Testing, Charters

Andrea Zelinski has the story in Tweets

You might remember that not long ago, Board members asked for a work session to learn more about how much time, money is spent on standardized testing.

Looks like they didn’t get much in the way of answers.  Though Paul Changas did indicate that as more regular assessment occurs, there is less need for standardized tests.

I’d suspect Frogge and Speering (who brought the issue up) will want more than that, so this issue may continue to get some attention.