Questar’s Challenge

After missing a self-imposed deadline to select a new testing vendor, the Tennessee Department of Education finally announced Questar as the choice to design and implement TNReady for the 2016-17 school year and beyond.

Questar is tasked with picking up the pieces of the mess left by Measurement Inc’s testing failures last year. There’s plenty of information about the struggle leading up to last year’s debacle, and it’s information Questar may want to study closely.

Questar does have a record of coming in to fix a previous vendor’s mistakes. Most notably, in New York. Interestingly, Questar used questions designed and developed by Pearson (the previous vendor) in the first year of new tests in New York.

This arrangement is not uncommon and in fact, is similar to Measurement Inc’s contract with AIR to provide questions from Utah’s test for TNReady.

However, such an arrangement is not without problems.

Politico reported on challenges last year when Questar took over New York’s testing. Specifically:

An error found in the fifth- through eighth-grade English exam, and one that the state education department already has advised will be in the math exams, hasn’t helped the situation.

The tests directed students to plan their written answers to exam questions on “Planning Pages,” however no planning pages were included in the test booklets, according to a report from the Buffalo News.

Pearson immediately released a statement saying the design error was not its fault and Questar said the tests were still valid and blamed the transition for the error.

It’s the type of blame game that may sound familiar to those who watched this year’s TNReady fiasco.

A blog post from a parent blog in New York describes how the error unfolded. Schools were notified well into the test administration:

The message was sent at 9:09 AM from SED and I saw [it] at 9:30 …when most students are done and have turned in their books…. Even if an administrator is on their email all day (which they aren’t) it is too late to walk around on tests that started at 8:00 to interrupt testing rooms to correct the mistake.

And while Questar gets high marks for its transparency efforts, some see a bit lacking in that department as well:

It is true that the amount of operational test material and the number of items disclosed is more than was given out in each of the prior three years of Pearson’s core-aligned testing. And since 2012, this is the earliest this has happened. [Note: When CTB/McGraw-Hill was the test publisher during the NCLB years, the complete test was accessible to the public on SED’s web site within weeks of its administration, along with answer keys. Item analysis data followed shortly thereafter.]
Upon review of the just-released spring 2016 testing output, however, certain useful data have not been made available. SED has been moved to offer us a translucent view of the exams, but it still is not being entirely transparent.

The bottom line: Questar is walking into quite a mess in Tennessee. It’s something they are surely aware of and something they have experience handling.

Going forward, the question will be how does Questar work with TNDOE to bring transparency and efficacy to a process that lacked both in 2015-16?

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


 

 

 

Neveready

Will Tennessee ever have a TNReady test?

The answer to that question got even fuzzier today as a Department of Education “deadline” to name a new test maker came and went with no announcement.

From Chalkbeat:

Tennessee has missed its own deadline to hire the testing company that will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off this spring.

The state canceled the North Carolina test maker’s contract in April, weeks after the launch of the company’s online testing platform went so badly that the tests were halted entirely. In May, officials awarded an emergency contract to testing conglomerate Pearson to grade some tests that did work — and said they would choose another company to handle the state’s testing program by the end of June.

The missed deadline comes just days after another scathing report revealing the details of emails leading up to the TNReady first day failure.

Apparently, when TNDOE sets a “deadline” it’s totally optional.

What does this mean?

The tight timeline also means that students and teachers likely will enter the school year without a sense of what their end-of-year tests will look like. Last year, some students began taking practice tests in October; it’s hard to imagine that happening this year.

Perhaps TNReady is really just about developing the life skill of adapting to chaos.

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


 

 

Ready for 5th Grade?

As this year’s TNReady testing transition faced problems and ultimately, was not completed, 5th-grade students at a Chattanooga school were preparing a report to improve testing in Tennessee.

The report was 14 pages and was mailed to Governor Bill Haslam in an attempt to influence the state’s decisions on testing going forward.

This project, by the way, is exactly the type of project-based learning that can and should be used more often to demonstrate student understanding of what they’ve learned.

Said one student of the project:

“We wanted to help make changes about something we’re passionate about,” Romero said. “And we learned how to unite to persuade someone.”

As a report on project-based assessment in one Kentucky district indicated:

The entire curriculum at this school has been redesigned around interdisciplinary projects, which take several weeks to complete. The English and social studies seventh-grade PBATs were group projects that took place in the fall.

One by one, the students stand and give a 20-minute solo presentation with a PowerPoint or video. Separately, they’ve handed in 15-page research papers. They’re giving these presentations to panels of judges made up of teachers from other grades or the high school, officials from a neighboring district, education students from the University of Kentucky, and fellow students.

Moving toward a hybrid model of standardized tests and project-based assessments could be a way to improve Tennessee’s testing system.

Commissioner McQueen is conducting a summer listening tour about testing, and that’s a great opportunity to share alternative strategies.

For now, the students at Nolan Elementary are demonstrating they are ready for a transition to a student-centered assessment strategy.

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

 

Candice is Listening

Or, she will be. The Commissioner of Education is going on a statewide tour to talk about testing in light of new flexibility offered to the states under the federal ESSA law, which replaced No Child Left Behind.

From the DOE’s press release:

Commissioner Candice McQueen and senior department leaders are launching a statewide listening tour to gather input from educators, key advocates, parents, students, and the public to determine how to implement specific components of the nation’s new federal education law: the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The feedback will inform a Tennessee-specific ESSA plan that will guide the department’s work over the coming years and help the state capitalize on the new law’s empowerment of local leadership. These conversations will also build off feedback the commissioner has received on her Classroom Chronicles tour, during which she has met with more than 10,000 Tennessee teachers to learn how policies impact the classroom.

 

“We need to continue to elevate educators’ ideas to strengthen our education system, and the new federal law provides an opportunity to do that,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “We look forward to hearing from a variety of educators – from classroom teachers to directors of schools – as well as advocates, parents, and students as we craft a plan for Tennessee to transition to ESSA.”

The release notes that some policy changes might be in order:

Over the summer and fall, department leadership will draft a plan for transitioning to ESSA based on stakeholder and public feedback. Stakeholders and the general public will have another opportunity to provide input on the draft plan later this fall. In spring 2017, the department will work with stakeholder groups, the State Board of Education, and the Tennessee General Assembly as needed to recommend changes to state law and policy, as well as develop further guidance for school districts.

 

In addition to the various feedback loops and meetings across the state, the department will also be guided by its strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds, which was developed with input from thousands of stakeholders over the course of several months to establish a clear vision for the future of Tennessee’s schools. It also has established a solid foundation in preparing to transition to ESSA.

Interestingly, the strategic plan referenced includes this under the category of Accountability:

Pilot first grade and career and technical education portfolio models in 2016, and continue to develop additional portfolio options for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects

Develop additional valid and reliable student growth measures for those areas that do not currently have them

Perhaps one improvement that will be suggested is that in addition to developing portfolio models for teacher evaluation (they already exist for related-arts teachers), the state should also provide funding to districts to support their implementation. Few districts use the state’s approved portfolio model for non-tested related arts teachers, likely because the cost of doing so is not covered by the state. Assessment includes both additional staff time and compensation for those performing the portfolio assessments.

The second item of note is: Develop additional valid and reliable student growth measures for those areas that do not currently have them.

This statement assumes that current methods of evaluating student growth (TVAAS) are valid and reliable. To put it simply, they’re not. Additionally, the most common method of assessing student growth is through standardized testing. This raises the possibility that additional tests will be provided for subjects not currently tested. After this year’s TNReady failure, it seems to me we should be exploring other options.

Nevertheless, I’m hopeful that this summer’s listening tour will lead to a new dialogue about Tennessee’s direction in education in light of ESSA. States like Hawaii are already taking student test scores out of the teacher evaluation process and moving toward new measures of evaluation.

Out of the chaos of TNReady, there is opportunity. Educators, parents, and students should attend these summer meetings and share their views on a new path forward for our state’s schools.

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

 

 

TNReady: Time for a Trade?

TC Weber thinks the TNDOE needs to trade in TNReady and the rest of the current testing regime for a new model:

The Tennessee Department of Education has faced a similar dilemma for the last few years. Every spring, without fail, there is some issue with the tests and they have to send them to the garage to be fixed. I think it’s safe to say that this year the equivalent of the transmission falling out. Parents, teachers, and even legislators have been telling the TNDOE that things are getting to the point that it’s getting cost prohibitive to fix and that we really need to start exploring a new policy. But unfortunately, the message doesn’t seem to be getting to the TNDOE. They just keep reaching for the checkbook, making a temporary fix, and then praying nothing else goes wrong.

It’s a good read and TC proposes some solid solutions, like using some of the new flexibility granted by ESSA to move toward a truly new model of testing.

Read it all here.

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

 

Rite of Passage

Ah, springtime. A time for warm days, cool nights, rain, and graduation. Yes, spring marks a rite of passage for students leaving one phase of life and entering another.

Lately, this season has brought another ritual: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to deliver student test scores. Each of the last three years has seen TNDOE demonstrate it’s inability to get state testing right (nevermind the over-emphasis on testing to begin with).

Back in 2014, there was a delay in the release of the all-powerful “quick scores” used to help determine student grades. Ultimately, this failure led to an Assistant Commissioner losing her job.

Then, in 2015, the way “quick scores” were computed was changed, creating lots of confusion. The Department was quick to apologize, noting:

We regret this oversight, and we will continue to improve our processes such that we uphold our commitment to transparency, accuracy, and timeliness with regard to data returns, even as we experience changes in personnel.

The processes did not appear to be much improved at all as the 2016 testing cycle got into full swing, with a significant technical failure on Day One.

As the now annual spring testing failure season approached, it was all out chaos, with the state’s testing vendor and the Commissioner of Education playing the blame game and students, teachers, and schools left with no test at all.  

All of the TNReady’s unreadiness led to an “emergency” contract for grading tests that will have them back in the hands of teachers and parents in time for the December holidays. Just the gift everyone wants!

Last year, Commissioner McQueen and her staff blamed a lack of communication during a staff transition:

Our goal is to communicate early and often regarding the calculation and release of student assessment data. Unfortunately, it appears the office of assessment logistics did not communicate decisions made in fall 2014 regarding the release and format of quick scores for the 2014-15 school year in a timely manner

This year, it was the state’s vendor, Measurement Inc:

TNReady was designed to provide Tennessee students, teachers, and families with better information about what students know and understand, and the failure of this vendor has let down the educators and students of our state.

Three years, two Commissioners, and a series of testing failures, with 2016’s the biggest yet.

What does spring of 2017 hold for Tennessee’s schools? Can we expect another testing mishap, or will the cycle be broken? Who will Candice McQueen blame if and when the testing failures we’ve come to expect happen again?

Maybe our old friend Pearson will not only provide a holiday miracle (graded tests, yay!) but also save us from the perils of yet another year with incomplete, confusing, or just plain meaningless results.

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

 

Mitchell Questions Pearson “Emergency”

State Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville is questioning the wisdom of an emergency test-grading contract granted to Pearson for the grading of TNReady tests from this year.

According to WSMV:

“Pearson is no better than Measurement Inc.,” said Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville.

Mitchell, who has been critical of standardized testing, is not fully confident in Pearson.

“Just in the last week, they’ve lost another huge contract,” Mitchell said. “In the last few months, they’ve lost testing contracts with the state of Texas, state of New York and the state of Florida. So if they’re not producing for them, why are we to think that they will produce for us?”

He said the last minute moves are too costly for students, schools and the state.

Mitchell’s not the only one raising concerns about Pearson. According to the story:

The Washington Post recently profiled testing concerns with Pearson. It listed nearly 20 years of testing and scoring flaws that have caused the company to lose multi-million dollar contracts with schools in some cases.

It’s not clear how much value the state will receive for the $18.5 million contract as the grades 3-8 results will be incomplete (part II of testing was not completed) and the results are not anticipated until December, well past time to provide useful information for teachers and students.

In addition to this emergency contract, the state is also seeking a permanent vendor to develop and administer TNReady tests for the 2016-17 academic year.

More on TNReady:

Pearson: We’re Ready To Grade

TEA on TNReady

Why TNReady Wasn’t

 

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


 

 

 

An $18.5 Million Emergency

As a result of the failure of Measurement Inc. to deliver on its TNReady promises, the State of Tennessee has awarded a contract to Pearson to grade tests completed by students this year, including high school EOC tests and Part I tests that were completed. The contract pays $18.5 million and the estimated completion date for grading is December.

Grace Tatter has the details:

The state’s contract with Pearson goes through December for scoring and reporting of 2015-16 assessments, including high school exams, Part I grade 3-8 tests, and any completed Part II grade 3-8 exams.

Now, to be clear, the “emergency” is that some students completed tests that weren’t graded and won’t be graded by Measurement Inc. because they were fired.

What about the fact that some tests were completed online and others were completed on paper? Never fear, the state’s data team has a plan:

Measurement Inc. already has scored high school exams completed online last fall for students who are on block schedules. Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Townes said the state will use a formula to ensure that those scores are comparable to the scores of tests completed on paper, and to be graded by Pearson, this spring.

So, as a result of this new contract, there will be two different vendors grading the same test as well as some tests completed in an online format and some on pencil and paper.

Oh, and the results are due back in December. Well past time to have much value to inform instruction or help parents or students understand areas of deficiency.

Instead of spending $18.5 million on grading these tests which will have limited usefulness, the state could use that money to fully develop and pay for portfolio assessment at the district level for related arts and other non-tested teachers.

It could also use some of that money to support the unfunded mandate of RTI2.

Or, it could spend a portion of that money on developing an alternative assessment regimen — perhaps incorporating project-based assessment and reducing the reliance on standardized testing. Maybe even finding ways to reduce total testing time. Or, develop an assessment waiver as allowed under the new ESSA.

Out of crisis can come opportunity – and we have an opportunity and some unspent funds that could be used to develop better, more student-focused solutions going forward.

Instead, we’re handing money to Pearson and trying to get back to business as usual as soon as possible.

Rest assured:

…the department plans to select a new vendor in June to develop and administer next year’s state assessment.

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

Pearson: We’re Ready to Grade

While the Tennessee General Assembly forced a move away from Pearson as the state’s testing vendor in 2014, the familiar company (who delivered and scored TCAP for many years) is now back and will provide the grading for the TNReady high school tests.

Jason Gonzalez at the Tennessean notes:

The Tennessee Department of Education has contracted with its previous test vendor Pearson Education in an emergency maneuver to score TNReady high school tests.

The contract with Pearson is only for scoring and reporting of 2015-2016 assessments, according to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in a letter Monday to school directors statewide.

The new contract is necessary because the Department of Education the state’s testing vendor, Measurement Inc. due to a failure to deliver the TNReady test as desired.

While high school tests will be scored, it’s not clear there will be any scores provided to students in grades 3-8 who completed Part I of the new assessment.

WATE in Knoxville reports:

So, the blank tests remain in the Durham warehouse. In another MI warehouse about 15 minutes away, there are thousands more boxes; they’re filled with Part I of the TNReady test. If your child took that test, chances are good that it’s just sitting in that warehouse. Scherich said those have all been scanned into MI’s system, but because the DOE cancelled the contract and, according to Scherich, never paid six months of invoices, it’s possible they’ll never be scored.

The state is currently seeking a vendor to both deliver and score the TNReady assessment in 2016-17.

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

 

 

Don’t Tell Candice

As it became clearer that TNReady simply wasn’t, more school districts saw parents attempting to opt their children out of the state-mandated tests. In the face of this challenge, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent a memo offering districts guidance on how to handle students who attempted to opt-out or refuse the test.

Part of the memo suggested that federal law requires test administration and earlier guidance provided to Murfreesboro City Schools suggested there could be financial penalties if districts failed to administer the tests.

The threat of withholding $3 million in BEP money from Williamson County eventually led that district to resume administration of the EOC tests in high school.

All along, the state has argued a district’s federal funds could be in jeopardy due to refusal to administer the test or a district’s inability to test at least 95% of its students.

As such, the argument goes, districts should fight back against opt-outs and test refusals by adopting policies that penalize students for taking these actions.

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.

The state’s top education official, Merryl Tisch, had this to say about the prospect of withholding funds from districts:

“I think when you withdraw money from a school district, what you’re doing is you’re hurting the kids in the school district,” she said. “So I don’t think that’s an effective way to deal with it.”

While Tisch expressed frustration with the high opt-out numbers in some districts, her first response was not to punish districts (and their students) by withholding funds. Instead, she called for more communication and transparency surrounding the testing.

This year’s TNReady test lacked transparency and clear communication. As failures mounted, a blame game started. And when parents and some districts had had enough, rather than work through the challenges, Commissioner McQueen’s first response was to threaten sanctions, including the withholding of funds.

That sort of tactic may enable McQueen to get her way in the short-term, but it’s certainly not a way to build the trust and support she’ll need to usher in yet another testing vendor next school year.

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