Not Likely to End Well

Former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman notes that in light of the coronavirus pandemic, American schools are moving online and to homeschooling in a patchwork experiment that is “not likely to end well.” His article, in the Washington Post, follows a note from Donald Cohen about the inherent value of public schools. It also highlights what will be important challenges going forward.


As the coronavirus pandemic closes schools, in some cases until September, American children this month met their new English, math, science and homeroom teachers: their iPads and their parents. Classes are going online, if they exist at all. The United States is embarking on a massive, months-long virtual-pedagogy experiment, and it is not likely to end well. Years of research shows that online schooling is ineffective — and that students suffer significant learning losses when they have a long break from school. Now they’re getting both, in a hastily arranged mess. And the kids who suffer most from the “summer slide” are the low-income students, the ones already struggling to keep up.


First, research shows that even with great planning, a willing audience and lots of effort from teachers well-schooled in distance learning, results for K-12 students are lackluster. The author of one study of virtual charter schools (which have more online offerings and thus more to study than public institutions) noted that “challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction,” in part because of the limited student-teacher contact time. “Years of evidence [is] accumulating about how poorly these schools are performing,” the author of one multiparty report held in 2016. That report concluded, “Full-time virtual schools are not a good fit for many children.”


Finally, since states are losing standardized testing this spring, they’ll need to administer tests at the start of the next school year to see what students know after the crisis. Assessments should be informative and not used to measure or rate schools or teachers. Without this, it will be impossible to know the extent of the challenge and where resources should be deployed to deal with it.

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Trump vs. TNReady

While the Tennessee General Assembly voted to give Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn broad powers to waive TNReady testing, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made clear that standardized testing will not be required this year in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. More from Chalkbeat:


Schools will not have to administer federally required tests this year, President Trump and the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday — an unprecedented but unsurprising move in the wake of widespread school closures due to the new coronavirus. 


“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”


The education department said that, “upon proper request,” it would grant a waiver to any state not able to assess students because schools are closed due to concerns about the new coronavirus. The department directed states to fill out a “streamlined” application form on its website.

To be clear, the legislation passed in Tennessee allows local school districts to request waivers from TNReady. They may also administer the tests if they so choose, though so far, no district has openly suggested they plan to administer the tests.

In fact, Hamilton County Schools are closed through April 13th and Montgomery County announced closure through May 1st. Both of those dates make TNReady testing virtually impossible. At the least, they’d render any test results of little to no value.

Is your district planning to use TNReady this year? Let TNEdReport know!

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RESOLVED: End TNReady

While reports indicate Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has asked the US Department of Education for a waiver to TNReady testing requirements, the Columbia Daily Herald reports state Rep. Scott Cepicky is pushing for action on the issue.


State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Columbia, called on Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education on Monday to end the state’s annual standardized testing cycle.


“These are perilous times,” Cepikcy said in the letter. “Tennessee has unique circumstances as a result of devastating tornadoes and COVID-19. We cannot be certain that our state will not require additional school closings during the entire testing widow. However, Tennessee can’t administer assessments that are reliable and valid during this academic year.”

The federal Department of Education has issued guidance suggesting they will grant such waiver requests:


Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

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Penny on TNReady and COVID-19

Here’s a letter Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn sent to Directors of Schools regarding Coronavirus, testing, and school attendance/school closures. In short, she’s not going to make any decisions or take any leadership role.

Schwinn does not seem ready to ask the legislature to waive the tests or to recommend closing schools or to advocate for any emergency measures. This insistence on continuing to test comes despite federal guidance suggesting that states could very well receive waivers from testing mandates:


Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

So, we could have a Commissioner asking for a waiver. And, we could be taking steps to close schools or waive the 180 day attendance requirement. We’re just … not.

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Coronavirus and TNReady

Is it time to cancel TNReady testing in light of concerns over COVID-19? The federal government seems to at least allow for states to make this call, according to a story in Chalkbeat.


States might be able to scrap their required annual tests for closed schools, the federal education department said Thursday, as concerns about the coronavirus swept the country


Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

Not only could this be a relief for Directors of Schools facing a tough call, it could alleviate the strain of what has so far been a failed TNReady testing experiment.

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Testing, Vouchers No Recipe for Success in Schools

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City writes about the reality of current education policy in his latest piece for the Johnson City Press.


In the 40 years since Anyon’s article was published, accountability measures have standardized public school curricula, and testing pressures have kept teachers from deviating from these standards. Although there has been some effort in recent years to include higher-level learning expectations in mandated curricula, the inherent limitations of standardized testing make it unlikely that many of today’s classrooms — even in the most well-funded schools — can provide the rich, engaging learning experiences children had in the affluent professional and executive elite schools Anyon studied.


However, as Nikhil Goyal wrote in 2016, it’s noteworthy that most of our politicians have enrolled their children “in schools outside the wrath of their own education policies.” Austere budgets and high stakes testing measures that narrow the curriculum and diminish the joy of learning are good enough for our children, but not for theirs.


That’s worth remembering whenever you hear politicians yammering about how they’re going to eliminate the achievement gap with $7,000 vouchers and more incentives to raise test scores.

Smith makes the point that what our leaders have not done so far is actually meaningfully increase investment in schools. Neither a more intense focus on testing nor the offering of vouchers will actually move the needle when it comes to student outcomes.

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50 Days

Kindergarten teachers in Tennessee spend at least 50 days administering or working on some form of student assessment, according to a group of teachers from Knox County. WBIR-TV has more:


On Wednesday night, West Hills Elementary School fourth grade teacher Hedy Hilts Collins shared some concerns about kindergarten testing in Knox County Schools. 


“I am gravely concerned that the expectations that our school district has set upon our kindergarten students are causing feelings of frustration and failure,” she said that night. 


Collins said she got the idea after she saw her colleagues calendar for the rest of the years. She said through flipping through it she noticed over 50 days teachers had to administer or work on some type of student measurement. 

The heightened concern over instructional time lost due to Kindergarten testing comes as the state continues to utilize a Kindergarten portfolio evaluation system referred to by teachers as a complete “fiasco.”

The portfolio system had problems from the outset, and those problems have only gotten worse as the Tennessee Department of Education makes excuses instead of developing solutions.

Teachers, parents, and students continue to raise concerns about both the amount of testing and the value of that testing. Will lawmakers take action?

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Testing and Teachers

Republicans in the Indiana House of Representatives are taking action to remove test scores from teacher evaluations, the Indianapolis Star reports.


A bill to remove student test scores from performance evaluations that can impact teachers’ pay and promotion prospects unanimously passed a key committee Tuesday. Statehouse leadership is championing House Bill 1002, which could end up being one of the most consequential bills of the 2020 legislative session.


Current state law requires that test scores makeup a significant portion of a teacher’s evaluation, which rates them as highly effective, effective, improvement necessary or ineffective. A teacher’s rating can determine their salary, whether or not they’re eligible for raises or bonuses and impact their movement through the profession.

If this legislation is successful, Indiana will join states like Hawaii, Oklahoma, and New York in moving away from using testing — and, especially, value-added modeling — to evaluate teachers.

A study I reported on last year noted that using value-added modeling (as Tennessee does by way of TVAAS) is highly problematic. In fact, this particular study noted that value-added models suggest that your child’s teacher could impact their future height:


We find the standard deviation of teacher effects on height is nearly as large as that for math and reading achievement, raising obvious questions about validity. Subsequent analysis finds these “effects” are largely spurious variation (noise), rather than bias resulting from sorting on unobserved factors related to achievement. Given the difficulty of differentiating signal from noise in real-world teacher effect estimates, this paper serves as a cautionary tale for their use in practice.

In short, value-added data doesn’t tell us much about teacher performance. Additional data indicates further problems with value-added modeling for teacher evaluation — especially as it relates to middle school teachers:


Well, it could mean that Tennessee’s 6th and 7th grade ELA teachers are the worst in the state. Or, it could mean that math teachers in Tennessee are better teachers than ELA teachers. Or, it could mean that 8th grade ELA teachers are rock stars.


Alternatively, one might suspect that the results of Holloway-Libell’s analysis suggest both grade level and subject matter bias in TVAAS.


In short, TVAAS is an unreliable predictor of teacher performance. Or, teaching 6th and 7th grade students reading is really hard.

The study cited above showed that 6th and 7th grade ELA teachers consistently received lower TVAAS scores and that this was true across various districts. Or, as I noted: The study suggests both grade level and subject matter bias in TVAAS results.

Or, maybe, if your kid gets the “right” teacher, s/he WILL end up taller?!

The bottom line: Using value-added modeling to evaluate teachers is total crap.

Indiana’s lawmakers are finally catching on. It’s time for Tennessee to catch up.

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Testing and College

Jill Richardson talks about a lawsuit against the University of California that is taking on the SAT/ACT.

A lawsuit is taking on the University of California system’s use of the SAT and ACT standardized tests in admissions. The suit claims the tests are “deeply biased and provide no meaningful information about a student’s ability to succeed.”

As a sociologist who’s looked at the research, I agree the tests are biased.

For instance, studies show that students whose parents have more education and/or higher incomes do better on the tests. Test scores are also racially biased, with whites and Asians scoring better than blacks and Latinos in ways that are “unlikely” to be “explained away by class differences across race,” according to Brookings researchers.

Why does wealth impact your SAT score? There are several reasons

Schools are funded by property taxes, so students from wealthier families get to go to better-funded schools. They can afford to take test prep classes, and they can afford to take the test multiple times to improve their scores. Additionally, students from wealthy families are more likely to get access to disability accommodations (like extra time) on the exam if they qualify for them.

But there’s a second part to the lawsuit’s claim: These test scores don’t even predict a student’s ability to succeed in college.

This appears to be correct as well. What does predict college success? High school GPA. This makes sense: The skills students use to get good grades in high school are more or less the same ones they use to get good grades in college. The skills used to take a standardized test generally aren’t. 

In America, we like to think we live in a meritocracy, where people get ahead through brains, grit, and hard work. We don’t. 

Instead, students from low-income families are already at a disadvantage in the school system, for a long list of reasons. Even the most talented and hard-working child born into a poor family is going to struggle to compete with wealthier peers.

In episode of This American Life, a reporter followed an honor student around his high school in Ferguson, Missouri. In an entire day he had only three academic classes, and only one in which a teacher showed up and taught. 

At the time the reporter visited, the school had been failing for so long that it had lost its accreditation, and yet it was still teaching students — or failing to. How could even the best students in that school compete with peers who had full days of classes with teachers teaching in their schools?

While the school system cannot single-handedly correct for all social ills and inequalities, it should do what it can to level the playing field for all students. And efforts to increase equity need to start long before students apply to college.

That said, if standardized tests are biased against low-income students and students of color — and if they don’t even predict success in college — then what are they even for?

Under these circumstances, the only function they can possibly serve is as a roadblock to social mobility for students who were not born into privilege — and as an extra unearned advantage for those who were.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

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Truly Disturbing

Will TNReady be ready this year? Some employees at the Tennessee Department of Education are raising alarms, according to a story from Fox 17 in Nashville.

The story details emails from whistleblowers within the department who call the current work environment “truly disturbing.” The complaints note that staffing issues — an unusually high turnover rate — are creating problems with preparation for this year’s assessment:

The three whistleblowers which wrote to FOX 17 News all requested anonymity to protect their professional careers. Their ultimate concern with the new hires and staff turnover is that the state is unprepared to administer a successful TCAP — the test that measures success in the classroom. Even at full staff, the state has had problems effectively administering the test in the past. Several have left the assessment team including the two individuals with the most experience in “assessment content and logistics.”

An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

To say that TNReady has been disappointing would be an understatement. From day one, the test has been fraught with challenges. There have been three vendors in five years, and a range of issues that caused one national expert to say:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

So, here we go again. Another year, another warning about potential TNReady trouble. Now, of course, we’re also stuck with a Governor who seems not to know or care about how to run government effectively.

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