Next?

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is again looking for a Superintendent as it was announced today that current Superintendent Malika Anderson is on her way out.

Chalkbeat has the story:

Malika Anderson, who has sought to steer Tennessee’s school turnaround district to stability after its contentious early work in Memphis and Nashville, is stepping down as its second superintendent at the end of this month.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had this to say about the move:

“This transition in no way disrupts our work,” McQueen said in a press release. “We are taking what we have learned about school improvement over the past five years and using that knowledge to maximize students’ success by putting in place a strong set of evidence-based options that will drive improvements in students performance.”

Anderson is the second Superintendent in the ASD’s short history, replacing Chris Barbic. Barbic noted on his departure:

In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

The ASD has been plagued with both lackluster results and challenges connecting with the communities it serves during its brief but tumultuous existence.

According to the Department of Education’s release, a search will begin immediately for Anderson’s replacement. In the meantime, Deputy Commissioner of Education Kathleen Airhart will serve as Interim Superintendent. Before coming to the Department of Education, Airhart was the Director of Schools in Putnam County.

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


 

Trade Offer

I reported last week on the Data Wars brewing between the state’s two largest school districts and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Now, as both Nashville and Memphis dig in, MNPS is offering a trade of sorts.

Chalkbeat reports on a letter sent by MNPS Board Chair Anna Shepard to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

In her letter, Shepard proposes cooperation between the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) and MNPS based on several conditions.

Specifically:

I would personally be willing to consider a coordinated initiative under which MNPS, using its existing communications infrastructure, would inform families about ASD choice options — if they choose to “opt in” to such communications. I cannot speak for my board colleagues until such time as we have had the opportunity to deliberate on this concept.

Shepard’s conditions:

  1. A moratorium on ASD expansion
  2. State subsidies for schools that lose students to the ASD
  3. The State engage in discussions around a new “fiscal impact” component of the BEP to address the impact charter schools have on local school districts

Regarding that fiscal impact, an audit of MNPS published in 2015 noted this:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

As for the ASD moratorium, it seems that the turnaround district continues to produce underwhelming results. Combine this with a track record of poor communication and you begin to understand why districts aren’t eager for the ASD to open more schools in their backyards.

For her part, Commissioner McQueen is seeking an Attorney General’s opinion on the MNPS and Shelby County interpretation of the data-sharing law passed in the 2017 legislative session.

It seems unlikely that McQueen would agree to the conditions set forth by Shepard. It seems possible both MNPS and Shelby County will face the threat of fines should they continue resisting.

Stay tuned as the Data Wars heat up.

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


 

Data Wars

Candice McQueen has set up a showdown with the state’s two largest school districts over student data sharing and charter schools.

McQueen sent a letter to Shelby County Schools and shared the same letter with MNPS. In the letter, she notes a new state law requiring school districts to share student data with charter schools upon request. The data is used so that charter schools can market to potential students.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reports on the Shelby County issue:

Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Monday to immediately share the information requested by Green Dot Public Schools. She said the district’s refusal violates a new state law by withholding information that charter operators need to recruit students and market their programs.

Shelby County Schools has not yet said they will comply with McQueen’s request.

The primary sticking point seems to be with the charter schools that are now part of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD’s experience in Shelby County has been troubled, at best. From communication challenges to struggling performance, the ASD has not lived up to expectations.

For its part, MNPS is beginning to take steps to restrict the data available to the ASD.

Jason Gonzalez reports in the Tennessean:

The practice of providing charter schools with student contact information has been common in Nashville, but board members bristled on Tuesday over the sharing of information with the Achievement School District.

While not a final vote, the board took a crucial step forward with a new policy that will not release contact information to the Achievement School District.

The policy moved out of committee with 7 board members in favor, Jo Ann Brannon abstaining and Mary Pierce voting against the proposal.

The key question now is: What happens if Shelby County and MNPS refuse to share this data? What penalty might they face?

Gonzalez notes:

In 2012, Metro Schools decided to reject the Great Hearts Academies charter schools application — after the state directed it not to do so — and then-Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman docked Nashville $3.4 million in education funds.

Similarly, during the TNReady testing fiasco, McQueen threatened districts with a funding penalty.

It’s not yet clear what will happen this time, but it seems like a financial penalty will ultimately be on the table if the two districts fail to comply.

Stay tuned, the data wars are beginning.

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


 

We Paid $60 Million for That?

Guess what? Tennessee taxpayers are on the hook for some $60 million to testing vendor Questar for new TNReady tests.

Guess what else? Those tests aren’t exactly helpful.

At least that’s the word from the education professionals in classrooms.

The Tennessean reports this year’s survey of Tennessee teachers indicates:

Sixty-five percent of educators surveyed said standardized exams aren’t worth the investment of time and effort. The same percentage of teachers said the exams don’t help refine teaching practices.

And 60 percent said the test doesn’t help them understand whether students gain the knowledge necessary to meet state standards.

In response, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen notes:

And teachers haven’t yet recieved meaningful data from the change to TNReady to help guide instruction due to the transition, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. The state has and will continue to work to improve the usefulness of the test, she said.

Except the attitude about the previous tests wasn’t much better:

The attitudes toward testing also aren’t necessarily new.

In the 2015 survey, educators said testing was a burden, with teachers reporting they spent too much time preparing students for exams and taking tests.

Now, though, our students spend even more time testing and preparing for tests. Tests that educators don’t find useful. In fact, Chalkbeat notes:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

Why isn’t the testing useful? For one, the results don’t come back in time. Even with the switch to a new testing vendor this year following the debacle of the first year of TNReady, quick score results weren’t back very quickly and final results will be delivered later this year.

It’s worth noting, though, that even before the transition to TNReady, teachers found the testing regime burdensome and unhelpful. It’s almost like the state is surveying teachers but not actually paying attention to the results.

Why are educators frustrated, exactly? Teacher Mike Stein offers this:

Meanwhile, teachers’ performance bonuses and even their jobs are on the line. Though they wouldn’t assert themselves into the discussion, principals and directors of schools also rely heavily upon the state to administer a test that measures what it says it will measure and to provide timely results that can be acted upon. As long as both of these things remain in question, I must question both the importance of TNReady and the competence of those who insist upon any standardized test as a means of determining whether or not educators are doing their jobs.

Taxpayers are spending money on a test that day-to-day practitioners find unhelpful. In the case of evaluations, they also find it unfair. Because, well, it’s just not a valid indicator of teacher performance.

Perhaps state policymakers should take a closer look at the teacher survey results. Teachers have no problem being evaluated, and in fact, most say the current system provides them with useful feedback. The observation rubric is robust and with proper implementation and meaningful building-level support, can be helpful as a means of improving teaching practice.

What’s not especially helpful is a test that takes up significant instructional time and doesn’t yield information in a timely or useful manner.

Taking a step back and removing the high stakes associated with a single test could be an important first step toward right-sizing our state’s approach to student assessment.

 

 

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


 

Hey, We’re Serious!

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent another letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month, urging caution as President Trump’s budget moves forward.

McQueen had written previously to alert DeVos to the negative impacts of the budget on Tennessee.

The latest letter warned of deep impacts in rural communities. The Tennessean reports:

In her letter, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the elimination of Title II, part A funds in the upcoming federal budget would severely hinder the state’s ability to train teachers. McQueen estimated in the letter that the cuts would hit public school students across the state as well as more than 42,000 students in private schools.

Cuts in the overall federal budget could mean Tennessee could see larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs, according to superintendents and child advocacy groups.

I’ve noted previously that districts like Dickson County and Williamson County have County Commissions reluctant to fund school budgets.  Many of the state’s rural counties simply don’t have the funds to spend significantly on schools.

It will be interesting to see if County Commissions in the districts most impacted by the DeVos cuts are willing to spend the money to make up for  lost federal funds. Additionally, I’m curious as to whether County Commissions and School Boards are actively lobbying DeVos and their Members of Congress over the proposed Trump education budget.

As McQueen notes, should this budget pass, it will mean stark choices for many districts — and even impact a number of our state’s private schools.

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


 

More Testing, Please

Even with proposals that reduced total testing time this year, Tennessee students spent about twice as much time taking tests than they did in 2012.

Chalkbeat has more:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

The Tennessee Education Association had this to say about the trend:

“While Tennessee is just at the beginning of the TNReady experiment, most teachers and parents believe there is too much time spent on testing and test prep,” says a statement by the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Tennessee is part of a nationwide trend toward longer tests, as states move away from purely multiple-choice assessments to ones with questions that are supposed to be better measure student learning — and take more time to answer.

Testing mandates increasing:

In addition to TNReady, the state mandated 14 separate tests this school year, including short diagnostic assessments for its intervention program, called RTI.

The new normal?

While TNReady has been disappointing in terms of the crash last year and the quick score mess this year, it appears it will continue to be the norm for Tennessee schools going forward.

More tests. Longer tests. All to satisfy the demand for accountability. We still don’t know how well TNReady works to assess standards because it simply failed last year. We haven’t seen test questions or answers. And while some parents attempt to opt-out, Commissioner McQueen stands against allowing that choice.

When resisting opt-out, McQueen and others often cite federal law requiring districts to test 95% of their students. But, here’s the thing:

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.

As we see both problems with test administration and score delivery, we may also see more parents move to opt their children out of the growing number of tests students face. It’s important to note that when those wishing to opt-out are told it will cost their district money, that claim is not backed up by any federal action. It’s up to Tennessee’s Department of Education to decide whether or not to allow opt-outs or to punish districts by withholding funds. Ultimately, the Department of Education is accountable to the General Assembly.

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


 

McQueen vs. DeVos

President Trump’s education budget is bad news for Tennessee’s schools. So much so that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, penned a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking that the proposed cuts be reconsidered.

Jason Gonzalez of the Tennessean reports:

Tennessee officials say heavy cuts to children’s programs in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could hinder the long-term progress the state has made helping poor and disadvantaged kids.

The $4.1 trillion White House budget proposal calls for cuts to school and health care funding that helps the state’s neediest children.

The cuts could mean larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs.

McQueen warned:

“Tennessee’s rural areas and poorer districts are especially dependent upon these funds, as their local budgets are unable to provide additional support for professional learning,” McQueen wrote.

According to the State Report Card, federal funding accounts for 11.72% of all education funding in the state. While all of those funds wouldn’t be eliminated in the Trump-DeVos budget, the proposal does make significant cuts. Rural communities are often more dependent on federal funds and so would be hit hardest, as McQueen notes.

While Tennessee has made some progress in recent years on school funding, the state is still behind where it should be in terms of full funding of the BEP — the funding formula for schools. Losing a significant amount of federal dollars would deal a blow to a state finally inching forward in terms of education progress.

The McQueen letter may be the first public evidence that the Haslam administration is at odds with the leadership from Washington. It’s encouraging to see McQueen take this stand and publicly fight for the needs of Tennessee’s poorest districts.

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


 

A Little Less Creepy

Two years ago I wrote about Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) creeping beyond its original mission. I noted then that the state’s Race to the Top grant which spawned the ASD envisioned a handful of schools receiving highly targeted attention. I argued that rapid growth and a lack of clear communication contributed to a bumpy start for the turnaround effort. I concluded by offering this suggestion:

By creeping beyond its admirable mission, the ASD has become an example of good intentions gone awry. Focusing on the original goal of using highly focused effort to both improve struggling schools AND learn new strategies to help other schools would be a welcome change.

Now, Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports the ASD is being scaled back and re-focused. She notes:

In Tennessee’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings with new policies approved this spring by the legislature. They address longstanding concerns, including complaints that the state district had moved beyond its original purpose, lacked a clear exit strategy, and didn’t give local districts enough time to execute their own turnaround plans.

McQueen also announced plans to downsize the ASD’s structure this summer by slashing its team and merging several ASD-related offices in Memphis.

It will be interesting to watch how the “new” ASD evolves. Will it really focus on building partnerships and clear communication? Or, will it revert back to the posturing that caused problems as it grew in Memphis?

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


 

WTF, TNReady?

In what is sure to be surprising news to parents, students, and school district leaders, TNReady quick score results are delayed yet again. Hard to predict this type of disaster since it only happens every year for the past four years now.

This delay is due to a problem the vendor is having with new test scanning equipment.

Here’s a statement from Hamilton County Schools explaining the news they received from the Tennessee Department of Education:

Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen informed school directors state-wide today that TNReady assessment vendor Questar has experienced challenges with the scanning software and capacity to scan testing materials; therefore, the company will not be able to meet the raw score deadlines set.

Dr. McQueen has asked Questar for updates on district-specific timing, and says the company currently estimates the scores will be delivered for the state’s upload process no later than the week of June 12.

Questar released a statement, which I have attached to this email.

The message from Dr. McQueen says she plans to meet with several groups this summer, including the TOSS Board, to come up with solutions that may prevent Tennessee testing vendors from missing the deadline set for report cards for a third year in a row. Her office promises to keep districts posted as the state receives more information.

To their credit, Questar is taking responsibility. That’s a change in tone from previous testing vendor Measurement, Inc.

Here’s what Questar had to say:

A Statement from Questar Regarding Raw Score Delivery

Questar committed to spring TNReady raw score delivery on a timeline and terms we set and which were communicated extensively by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), however, our company has experienced scan set-up difficulties that will affect that timeline. Questar recently completed an upgrade to our scanning programs for paper tests, and we underestimated the time needed to fully integrate these upgrades. Therefore, any delays to the timeline are not the fault of the Tennessee Department of Education or the districts across the state. We take complete responsibility for this project, and we are actively working to meet our commitments to the state, districts, and educators. The purpose of this communication is to provide an update on the progress we are making to publish raw scores for grades 3-8 and End-of-Course assessments.

End-of-Course Status Update: Nearly all paper and online EOC raw scores are uploaded to EdTools. We appreciate the communication from the TDOE to reprioritize EOC delivery to ensure districts had these results as soon as possible.

3-8 Status Update: Questar is currently working through delays in scan processing for the 3-8 raw scores, which impact the timeline we previously provided to the TDOE for raw score delivery. We have experienced several software delays with our scan programming that we are actively resolving, and we are working to increase capacity within our scanning operations. We are committed to working with TDOE to mitigate these challenges in order to scan and score TNReady 3-8 assessments as quickly as possible. We will provide additional details and timelines, including district-specific estimations, as we make progress over the week.

The raw score delays will not impact the timeline for delivery of final score reports. Our scoring operations are unaffected by the scanning software issues, and we anticipate providing EOC final score reports this summer and 3-8 score reports this fall after the cut score process is complete, as previously announced.

We understand the importance of having the raw scores to communicate information to educators, students, and families, and we apologize for the inconvenience our delays have caused TDOE and our district partners in getting this information on the timeline we committed to months ago.

Questar sincerely appreciates our partnership with TDOE and the Tennessee educators and students we serve.

Tennessee has unique timing requirements for raw score delivery as compared to other states so we will continue to work with the department and districts to ensure that the future score return process is successful.

-Brad Baumgartner, Chief Partner Officer

At least we’re now paying millions of taxpayer dollars to a vendor who will take some heat, right?
This part of the Hamilton County statement is interesting:
The message from Dr. McQueen says she plans to meet with several groups this summer, including the TOSS Board, to come up with solutions that may prevent Tennessee testing vendors from missing the deadline set for report cards for a third year in a row.
Here’s a solution: Don’t count TNReady scores in student final grades. In fact, since McQueen readily admits that raw score data is of little actual value and since different methods of factoring quick scores lead to vastly different scores assigned to students, why even bother?
It’s clearly been a problem to get reliable quick score data back to districts. The data is of dubious value. Legislation should advance that eliminates the use of TNReady data in student grades.
As I’ve said before, TNReady may well be a solid test properly aligned to standards. Such a test can yield useful information. A more student-centered approach to testing would focus on project-based assessment and use tools like TNReady to provide diagnostic information for students, teachers, and schools.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

It Doesn’t Matter Except When It Does

This year’s TNReady quick score setback means some districts will use the results in student report cards and some won’t. Of course, that’s nobody’s fault. 

One interesting note out of all of this came as Commissioner McQueen noted that quick scores aren’t what really matters anyway. Chalkbeat reports:

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts.

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

First, tying the quick scores to student grades is problematic. Assuming TNReady is a good, reliable test, we’d want the best results to be used in any grade calculation. Using pencil and paper this year makes that impossible. Even when we switch to a test fully administered online, it may not be possible to get the full scores back in time to use those in student grades.

Shifting to a model that uses TNReady to inform and diagnose rather than evaluate students and teachers could help address this issue. Shifting further to a project-based assessment model could actually help students while also serving as a more accurate indicator of whether they have met the standards.

Next, the story notes that teachers will be evaluated based on the scores. This will be done via TVAAS — the state’s value-added modeling system. Even as more states move away from value-added models in teacher evaluation, Tennessee continues to insist on using this flawed model.

Again, let’s assume TNReady is an amazing test that truly measures student mastery of standards. It’s still NOT designed for the purpose of evaluating teacher performance. Further, this is the first year the test has been administered. That means it’s simply not possible to generate valid data on teacher performance from this year’s results. You can’t just take this year’s test (TNReady) and compare it to the TCAP from two years ago. They are different tests designed to measure different standards in a different way. You know, the old apples and oranges thing.

One teacher had this to say about the situation:

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

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