Knox County Takes a Stand

Last night, the Knox County School Board voted 6-3 in favor of a resolution calling on the General Assembly and State Board of Education to waive the use of TCAP/TNReady data in student grades and teacher evaluations this year.

The move comes as the state prepares to administer the tests this year with a new vendor following last year’s TNReady disaster. The lack of a complete testing cycle last year plus the addition of a new vendor means this year is the first year of the new test.

The Board passed the resolution in spite of Governor Haslam warning against taking such a step.

In his warning, Haslam said:

“The results we’ve seen are not by accident in Tennessee, and I think you have to be really careful about doing anything that could cause that to back up,” Haslam said.

He added:

Haslam attributed that progress to three things, including tying standardized tests to teacher evaluations.

“It’s about raising our standards and expectations, it’s about having year-end assessments that match those standards and then I think it’s about having assessments that are part of teachers’ evaluations,” Haslam said. “I think that you have to have all of those for a recipe for success.”

Haslam can present no evidence for his claim about the use of student assessment in teacher evaluation. In fact, it’s worth noting that prior to 2008, Tennessee students achieved at a high level according to what were then the state standards. While the standards themselves were determined to need improvement, the point is teachers were helping students hit the designated mark.

Teachers were moving students forward at this time without evaluations tied to student test results. Policymakers set a mark for student performance, teachers worked to hit that mark and succeeded. Standards were raised in 2008, and since then, Tennessee has seen detectable growth in overall results, including some exciting news when NAEP results are released.

To suggest that a year without the use of TVAAS scores in teacher evaluations will cause a setback is to insult Tennessee’s teachers. As if they’ll just relax and not teach as hard.

Another argument raised against the resolution is that it will somehow absolve teachers and students of accountability.

Joe Sullivan reports in the Knoxville Mercury:

In an email to board members, [Interim Director of Schools Buzz] Thomas asserted that, “We need a good standardized test each year to tell us how we are doing compared to others across the state and the nation. We will achieve greatness not by shying away from this accountability but by embracing it.” And he fretted that, “This resolution puts that at risk. In short, it will divide us. Once again we could find ourselves in two disputing camps. The pro-achievement folks on the one side and the pro-teacher folks on the other.”

Right now, we don’t know if we have a good standardized test. Taking a year to get it right is important, especially in light of the frustrations of last year’s TNReady experience.

Of course, there’s no need for pro-achievement and pro-teacher folks to be divided into two camps, either. Tennessee can have a good, solid test that is an accurate measure of student achievement and also treat teachers fairly in the evaluation process.

To be clear, teachers aren’t asking for a waiver from all evaluation. They are asking for a fair, transparent evaluation system. TVAAS has long been criticized as neither. Even under the best of circumstances, TVAAS provides a minimal level of useful information about teacher performance.

Now, we’re shifting to a new test. That shift alone makes it impossible to achieve a valid value-added score. In fact, researchers in the Journal of Educational Measurement have said:

We find that the variation in estimated effects resulting from the different mathematics achievement measures is large relative to variation resulting from choices about model specification, and that the variation within teachers across achievement measures is larger than the variation across teachers. These results suggest that conclusions about individual teachers’ performance based on value-added models can be sensitive to the ways in which student achievement is measured.
These findings align with similar findings by Martineau (2006) and Schmidt et al (2005)
You get different results depending on the type of question you’re measuring.

The researchers tested various VAM models (including the type used in TVAAS) and found that teacher effect estimates changed significantly based on both what was being measured AND how it was measured.

Changing to a new type of test creates value-added uncertainty. That means results attributed to teachers based on a comparison of this year’s tests and the old tests will not yield valid results.

While insisting that districts use TVAAS in teacher evaluations this year, the state is also admitting it’s not quite sure how that will work.

From Sullivan’s story:

When asked how these determinations will be made, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education acknowledges that a different methodology will have to be employed and says that, “we are still working with various statisticians and experts to determine the exact methodology we will use this year.”

Why not at take at least a year, be sure there’s a test that works, and then build a model based on that? What harm would come from giving teachers and students a year with a test that’s just a test? Moreover, the best education researchers have already warned that testing transitions create value-added bumps. Why not avoid the bumps and work to create an evaluation system that is fair and transparent?

Knox County has taken a stand. We’ll soon see if others follow suit. And if the state is listening.

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


 

 

As Flexible as a Brick Wall

Grace Tatter reports that officials at the Tennessee Department of Education are “perplexed” by concerns over using TNReady data in this year’s teacher evaluations.

While a number of districts have passed resolutions asking for a waiver from including TVAAS scores in this year’s teacher evaluations due to the transition to TNReady, a department spokesperson said:

“Districts have complete discretion to choose how they want to factor that data,” Ball said Thursday. “They don’t have to use TNReady or growth data in hiring, firing, retention or promotion.”

As Tatter’s story notes, however, data from TNReady will still be a part of a teacher’s TVAAS score — 10%. And that score becomes a part of a teacher’s overall evaluation score — a ranking from 1-5 that purports to measure a teacher’s relative effectiveness.

10% is enough to move a ranking up or down a number, and that can have significant impacts on a teacher’s career, even if they are not fired and their pay is not impacted. Of course, some districts may use this year’s data for those purposes, since it is not prohibited under the evaluation changes passed last year.

Dan Lawson outlines some of the of impact faced by teachers based on that final number:

The statutorily revised “new tenure” requires five years of service (probationary period) as well as an overall score of “4” or “5” for two consecutive years preceding the recommendation to the Board of Education. Last year, no social studies assessment score was provided since it was a field tested and the teacher was compelled to select a school wide measure of growth.  He chose POORLY and his observation score of a “4.38” paired with a school wide growth score in the selected area of a “2” producing a sum teacher score of “3” thereby making him ineligible for tenure nomination.

According to TCA 49-5-503, a teacher may not be awarded tenure unless she achieves a TEAM score of 4 or 5 in two consecutive years immediately prior to being tenure eligible. That means a TVAAS score that takes a teacher from a 4 to a 3 would render her ineligible.

Further, a tenured teacher who receives a TEAM score of a 1 or 2 in two consecutive years is returned to probationary status (TCA 49-5-504). So, that tenured teacher who was a 2 last year could be impacted by a TNReady-based TVAAS score that moves a TEAM score of a 3 down to a 2.

Districts don’t have “complete discretion” to waive state law as TNDOE spokesperson Ashley Ball seems to imply.

Further, basing any part of a teacher’s evaluation on TVAAS scores based on TNReady creates problems with validity. Why include a number in a teacher’s evaluation that is fundamentally invalid?

Teachers want an evaluation process that is fair and transparent. There’s nothing perplexing about that.

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

What Does ESSA Mean to You?

Jon Alfuth is the newest addition to the Tennessee Education Report team. In his inaugural post, he breaks down the newly-signed Every Student Succeeds Act.

This last week saw the passage of the successor to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Every Student Succeeds Act. After months and months of negotiations, this legislation is suddenly a reality. I’m here to break to down and give you an idea of what it means for districts across Tennessee.

NCLB, Waivers and Race to the Top

First, you have to start with No Child Left Behind and education policy under the Obama administration. The legislation massively ramped up the Federal Government’s involvement in what was traditionally a state dominated education system. The 2002 law set ambitious long term goals that every student would be proficient by an agreed upon date, required states to establish systems to track student performance and set stiff penalties for schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress towards those goals.

It didn’t go as planned. Early in the Obama administration (and arguably before), it was clear that the 100 percent proficiency goals and timeframe was an admirable dream, but a dream none the less. The Obama administration chose to grant states waivers from many provisions of federal policy, but only if the states adjusted their education policy to fit the administrations education agenda. Specifically, states had to implement college and career ready expectations for students, target low performing schools and population groups and create teacher and principal evaluation systems with student growth as a component.

Then came the Race to the Top, a competition among states for funding to implement education reform policies in each state. Tennessee was one of the first states to receive funding and required states to build assessment systems for standards, adopt data systems, support teachers and school leaders and create interventions in low performing schools. Tennessee already had TVAAS in place, so we were a natural fit as two of the key requirements were already met. One of the biggest innovations that has come out of Race to the Top is the Achievement School District, which was spurred largely by federal money.

ESSA

Now we get to the Every Student Succeeds Act. The act tones down much of the direct or indirect influencing of local education policy that has been promoted by the Federal Government while keeping the “spirit” of NCLB in place.

The goal in the compromise bill that has now been signed into law is to keep in place the structure preferred by democrats that forces states to report on and take action to rectify education inequities while at the same time catering to republican desires for more state and local control.

Here are some of the highlights of how this bill differs from the NCLB and Obama era policy:

  • Testing– under NCLB, testing was once a year every year In grades 3-8 with one test in high school. ESSA keeps the frequency of testing in place, but allows states to be more flexible with what tests are given and when in the year they are given.
  • Standards- ESSA takes the same tack as NCLB, supporting higher standards, but includes an interesting provision that prohibits the Secretary of Education from “influencing, incentivizing or coercing” states to adopt common core.
  • Accountability–ESSA pulls back from the NCLB era significantly and allows states to essentially come up with their own accountability goals, as long as those plans are submitted to the Department of Education. This contrasts with NCLB, which prescribed interventions from the top down. ESSA also relaxes the influence that test scores are required to play in accountability systems.
  • School evaluation– under NCLB, evaluation focused mostly on test scores. ESSA allows states to expand the scope of their evaluation to include “other measures” such as graduation rate, student engagement and disciplinary data in evaluation.
  • Low performing schools –under NCLB states had to address low performing schools using mostly prescribed methods. ESSA specifies that states must address the bottom 5% of schools by assessment scores and high schools with low graduation rates or underperforming subgroups, but again leaves it up to the states to decide how.
  • Overtesting – the law contains a provision to encourage states to eliminate unnecessary state and local tests and provides them funding to do so. It also would provide support to districts to analyze the amount of time teachers test with the end goal of reducing that time.

Dramatic Change?

Looking over these provisions, the overall theme of ESSA in my eyes is state designed accountability monitored by the federal government. This differs markedly from the spirit of NCLB, which used heavy handed top down methods to impose change. Now states are much more on the hook to come up with their own strategies to improve schools.

That said, this isn’t that different than what has been done under the waivers granted by the Obama administration. Waivers required states to submit a plan, which was then reviewed by the federal government and approved or turned down. The same concept seems to be at play within ESSA, but with more freedom granted to the states to decide what and how to address the different requirements embedded within ESSA.

Short Term Impact

Here in Tennessee, we already do much of what the flexibility under ESSA would allow. We’ve already started breaking up our assessments over the course of the year with the upcoming implementation of TNReady, where students will take their yearly assessment in two different sessions in the spring. We’ve also started down the road of eliminating unnecessary assessments.

We also have two existing interventions for low performing schools (ASD and iZone), we report our test data and have established data systems in place.

We also effectively tackled the standards issue by writing our own standards by revising and adding to the common core.

In sum, I don’t think we’re going to see a dramatic transformation of how we conduct education in Tennessee a la Race to the Top. I think the more likely outcome is that teachers and schools will start seeing small tweaks here and there to the education policy frameworks established over the past few years.

One area in which I think we could see some movement is in the area of reducing redundant testing. My hope is that the Tennessee DOE takes advantage of the funds available through ESSA to study the number of tests and the time that is spent preparing for them to take these assessments.

Longer Term Impact

My final take on all of this is that much of the result of ESSA locally will depend on the actions taken by constituents and their interactions with state elected officials. I’ve already explained why I don’t think much will happen, primarily because we’ve taken advantage of much of the flexibility already afforded us under NCLB waivers.

But that could change quickly depending on constituent mobilization. Local and state level elected officials are much more responsive to public opinion and Tennessee’s legislators seem especially so. For example, if we see tremendous upswing in the opt-out movement we might see a large rollback in the amount, frequency and design of our accountability measures.

For advocates of the current system, much of ESSA will come down to defending what has already been won in the past decade. The systems for a standards based accountability system are in place, and those that support this vision of education will need to likely fight tooth and nail to keep it intact.

In the end, movement will be up to advocates for the new states quo to push to keep what we already have and for opponents of the system to push for what they want to see change. That’s something that is very difficult to predict.

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

 

New and Not Ready

Connie Kirby and Carol Bomar-Nelson, English teachers at Warren County High School, share their frustration with the transition to TNReady and what it means for teacher evaluation.

Connie Kirby:

This is going to be long, but I don’t usually take to social media to “air my grievances.” Today I feel like there’s no better answer than to share how I feel. It’s been a long year with some of the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows. I work in a wonderful department at a great school with some of the most intelligent, hard-working people I know. As the years have progressed, we have gone through many changes together and supported each other through the good and the bad (personally and professionally). We do our best to “comply” with the demands that the state has put on us, but this year everything that we’ve been hearing about and preparing for for years has come to fruition. We’re finally getting familiar with the “real deal” test, instead of dealing with EOCs and wondering how it’s going to change. I’ve seen the posts and rants about Common Core and have refrained from jumping on the bandwagon because I have had no issues with the new standards. I do, however, see an issue with the new assessment, so I have held my hand in the hopes that I might find something worth sharing and putting my name next to. Today, I witnessed an exchange between one of my colleagues and the state, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. With her permission, I am sharing her words.

Carol Bomar-Nelson:

I don’t know how to fix the problems with the test. I agree that teachers should have accountability, and I think student test scores are one way of doing that. Having said that, if the state is going to hold teachers accountable for student test scores, then the test needs to be fair. From what I have seen, I firmly believe that is not the case. I am not just basing this conclusion on the one “Informational Test” in MICA. Other quizzes I have generated in MICA have had similar flaws. When my department and I design common assessments in our PLC’s, we all take the tests and compare answers to see which questions are perhaps ambiguous or fallacious in some way. I do not see any evidence that the state is doing this for the tests that it is manufacturing. A team of people can make a test that is perfect with respect to having good distractors, clear wording, complex passages, and all the other components that make up a “good” test, but until several people take the test, compare answers, and discuss what they missed, that test is not ready for students to take–especially not on a high stakes test that is supposed to measure teacher effectiveness. I understand that this is the first year of this test. I am sympathetic to the fact that everyone is going through a ‘learning process’ as they adapt to the new test. Students have to learn how to use the technology; teachers have to learn how to prepare their students for a new type of tests; administrators have to figure out how to administer the test; the state has to work out the kinks in the test itself…The state is asking everyone to be “patient” with the new system. But what about for the teachers? Yes, the teacher effectiveness data only counts for 10% this year, but that 10% still represents how I am as a teacher. In essence, this new tests is like a pretest, correct? A pretest to get a benchmark about where students stand at the end of the year with this new test that has so many flaws and so many unknowns. In the teaching profession, I think all would agree that it is bad practice to count a pretest AT ALL for a student’s grade. Not 35%, not 25%, not even 10%. So how is it acceptable practice to count a flawed test for 10% of a teacher’s evaluation? We can quibble all day about which practice questions…are good and which questions are flawed, but that will not fix the problem. The problem lies in the test development process. If the practice questions go through the same process as the real questions, it would stand to reason that the real test questions are just as flawed as the practice questions. My students have to take that test; I never get to see it to determine if it is a fair test or not, and yet it still counts as 10% of my evaluation that shows my effectiveness as a teacher. How is that fair in any way whatsoever? In what other profession are people evaluated on something that they never get to see? Especially when that evaluation ‘tool’ is new and not ready for use?

I know how to select complex texts. I know how to collaborate with my PLC. I can teach my students how to read, think critically, analyze, and write. When I do not know how to do something, I have no problem asking other teachers or administrators for suggestions, advice, and help. I am managing all of the things that are in my control to give my students the best possible education. Yet in the midst of all of these things, my teacher accountability is coming from a test that is generated by people who have no one holding them accountable. And at the end of the year, when those scores come back to me, I have no way to see the test to analyze its validity and object if it is flawed.

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

Not Yet Ready for Teacher Evaluation?

Last night, the Knox County Board of Education passed a resolution asking the state to not count this year’s new TNReady test in teacher evaluation.

Board members cited the grace period the state is granting to students as one reason for the request. While standardized test scores count in student grades, the state has granted a waiver of that requirement in the first year of the new test.

However, no such waiver was granted for teachers, who are evaluated using student test scores and a metric known as value-added modeling that purports to reflect student growth.

Instead, the Department of Education proposed and the legislature supported a plan to phase-in the TNReady scores in teacher evaluations. This plan presents problems in terms of statistical validity.

Additionally, the American Educational Research Association released a statement recently cautioning states against using value-added models in high-stakes decisions involving teachers:

In a statement released today, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) advises those using or considering use of value-added models (VAM) about the scientific and technical limitations of these measures for evaluating educators and programs that prepare teachers. The statement, approved by AERA Council, cautions against the use of VAM for high-stakes decisions regarding educators.

So, regardless of the phase-in of TNReady, value-added models for evaluating teachers are problematic. When you add the transition to a new test to the mix, you only compound the existing problems, making any “score” assigned to a teacher even more unreliable.

Tullahoma City Schools Superintendent Dan Lawson spoke to the challenges with TVAAS recently in a letter he released in which he noted:

Our teachers are tasked with a tremendous responsibility and our principals who provide direct supervision assign teachers to areas where they are most needed. The excessive reliance on production of a “teacher number” produces stress, a lack of confidence and a drive to first protect oneself rather than best educate the child.

It will be interesting to see if other school systems follow Knox County’s lead on this front. Even more interesting: Will the legislature take action and at the least, waive the TNReady scores from teacher evaluations in the first year of the new test?

A more serious, long-term concern is the use of value-added modeling in teacher evaluation and, especially, in high-stakes decisions like the granting of tenure, pay, and hiring/firing.

More on Value-Added Modeling

The Absurdity of VAM

Unreliable and Invalid

Some Inconvenient Facts About VAM

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

 

Not Yet TNReady?

As students and teachers prepare for this year’s standardized tests, there is more anxiety than usual due to the switch to the new TNReady testing regime. This according to a story in the Tennessean by Jason Gonzalez.

Teachers ask for “grace”

In his story, Gonzalez notes:

While teachers and students work through first-year struggles, teachers said the state will need to be understanding. At the Governor’s Teacher Cabinet meeting Thursday in Nashville, 18 educators from throughout the state told Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen there needs to be “grace” over this year’s test.

The state has warned this year’s test scores will likely dip as it switches to a new baseline measure. TCAP scores can’t be easily compared to TNReady scores.

Despite the fact that the scores “can’t be easily compared,” the state will still use them in teacher evaluations. At the same time, the state is allowing districts to waive the requirement that the scores count toward student grades, as the TCAP and End of Course tests have in the past.

In this era of accountability, it seems odd that students would be relieved of accountability while teachers will still be held accountable.

While that may be one source of anxiety, another is that by using TNReady in the state’s TVAAS formula, the state is introducing a highly suspect means of evaluating teachers. It is, in fact, a statistically invalid approach.

As noted back in March citing an article from the Journal of Educational Measurement:

These results suggest that conclusions about individual teachers’ performance based on value-added models can be sensitive to the ways in which student achievement is measured.

The researchers tested various VAM models (including the type used in TVAAS) and found that teacher effect estimates changed significantly based on both what was being measured AND how it was measured. 

 

That means that the shift to TNReady will change the way TVAAS estimates teacher effect. How? No one knows. We can’t know. We can’t know because the test hasn’t been administered and so we don’t have any results. Without results, we can’t compare TNReady to TCAP. And, even once we have this year’s results, we can’t fairly establish a pattern — because we will only have one year of data. What if this year’s results are an anomaly? With three or more years of results, we MAY be able to make some estimates as to how TCAP compares to TNReady and then possibly correlate those findings into teacher effect estimates. But, we could just end up compounding error rates.

Nevertheless, the state will count the TNReady results on this year’s teacher evaluations using a flawed TVAAS formula. And the percentage these results will count will grow in subsequent years, even if the confidence we have in the estimate does not. Meanwhile, students are given a reprieve…some “grace” if you will.

I’d say that’s likely to induce some anxiety.

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