Testing Flexibility

Tennessee state representative Terry Lynn Weaver (R-40) and Professional Educators of Tennessee Executive Director JC Bowman offer thoughts on the need for testing flexibility.

In Tennessee, we appreciate straight talk and candor. So, to the point: statewide testing has taken a wrong turn in public education, not to mention Tennessee has failed in our statewide testing administration since 2012. Now we are about to start over, possibly with a new vendor. There is no guarantee this will work any better than previous attempts.

At no point were any of the previous testing problems the fault of students or educators in Tennessee. The state has simply failed students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers. We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies, and even by our government. Clearly, there is a problem with testing in Tennessee. It is a flawed testing system, which could be addressed if we were to pilot innovative approaches that encourage our schools and their communities to work together and design solutions without bureaucratic hurdles. That would be a sensible strategy to pursue.

This is why some legislators have argued for allowing LEAs to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment. This request continues to be asked for by several high-performing districts across the state frustrated by state failures. We must also break down the bureaucratic barriers that have kept educators and school districts from pursuing solutions to the unique challenges of their communities. We should pursue reliable tests that provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students, or perhaps allow districts the opportunities to use these alternative assessments.

The current testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. No single test should be a determinant of a student’s, teacher’s or school’s success. Although we need testing to measure the progress of our students, we should recognize that these tests are often unreliable in evaluating teachers and schools. True measurement of progress should instead consist of several benchmarks, not just testing. However, testing goes beyond the purposes of entrance or placement into courses in postsecondary education or training programs.

With each testing failure, educators and districts have unfairly been the ones who bear the brunt, quite unfairly, of parental anger. Students also suffer, with everything from loss of instruction time to not understanding their educational progress. When we make education decisions on the basis of unreliable or invalid test results, we place students at risk and harm educators professionally. This is especially unfair to the hardworking teachers in our state.

We must listen to educators on the ground, and continue to champion innovation in public education. Educators want that chance to be inventive, and they understand the need to challenge the status quo to get results for the students in their community. Therefore, the state should not stand in the way of any LEA that wishes to use an alternative that is comparable to state-mandated assessment. The LEA should be required to notify parents or guardians of students that the LEA is using an approved testing alternative. In addition, the LEA, before using an approved testing alternative, should be required to notify the Tennessee Department of Education, in writing, of the grade level and subject matter in which the LEA intends to use an approved testing alternative. Senator Mark Pody and Representative Clark Boyd have proposed legislation (SB1307/HB1180) to allow districts this testing flexibility. It is similar to legislation that Senator Janice Bowling and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver have introduced previously (SB488/HB383).

High-quality assessments convey critical information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves and create the basis for improving outcomes for all learners. However, when testing is done badly or excessively, it takes important time away from teaching and learning and limits creativity from our classrooms. It is important that Tennessee improves postsecondary and career readiness for all Tennessee students. Flawed testing does not move us toward that goal. It is time we allow our districts the flexibility that they have requested.

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Unable to Verify

As TNReady prepares to start in a few weeks, more reassuring news from the Tennessee Department of Education.

Here’s the story, as reported by the Tennessean:


Tennessee education officials haven’t been able to verify if Questar Assessment, the state’s TNReady vendor, has the capacity to serve all test takers in the coming weeks. 


According to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, “flu and floodings” that impacted schools have prevented the department from running two verification tests ahead of statewide testing in April.
“We had one verification test and too many schools were closed, and we had another verification test and didn’t have enough schools because of flus and flooding,” Schwinn, who started her job in February, said. 

After a year of testing marked by hackers and dump trucks, it would seem the TNDOE would do more to ensure tests were ready this year. Or, even better, just take the year off and work to get testing “right” with a new vendor in 2019-20.

Instead, they push forward. So far, unable to verify the testing platform will work in spite of reports that practice tests aren’t always going so well.

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Toward Testing Transparency

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers thoughts on testing transparency as the next round of TNReady approaches.

Thomas Jefferson believed: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” We could not agree more. In Tennessee, our state agencies have a core function to serve the citizen’s interest, and protect our taxpayers to the benefit of the state. To ensure our school districts have aligned standards and instructional practices, we must have greater transparency in testing. Recently, Senate Bill 753/House Bill 1246 was introduced to address this critical issue.

This legislation, which we call the Testing Transparency Act, is common sense and is supported by both the Professional Educators of Tennessee and the Tennessee School Boards Association. The legislation will require the Tennessee Department of Education to release 50 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2019-20 school year, 75 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2020-21 school year, and 100 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2021-22 school year, to each LEA and public school. This proposed legislation will require these questions to be sent no less than 30 days after completion of TCAP tests.

That sounds simple enough, and it allows the state time to develop an adequate supply of questions. More importantly, it creates transparency in the system, and restores trust to the process. This importance is critical, if stakeholders are to have any faith in our testing system. By releasing the test questions LEAs can:

  1. Have informed discussions about a school or district’s curriculum.
  2. Allow educators to explore the links between concepts they teach and ways to measure students’ understanding.
  3. Permit districts and educators to design their own assessment according to their needs.
  4. Encourage districts and educators to reflect on the performance of their students in comparison to the performance of students in other schools and districts.

Accurate or not, tests have come to be viewed by the public as indicators of how well schools are educating our children. If this were the sole standard by which we measure success, then we have failed students, parents, and taxpayers—and especially our educators. Our state has spent an inordinate amount of time and money to test our students, without much to show for our efforts. It is time that changes, and the state must be willing to embrace this needed transparency.

The fixation by policymakers with increasing test scores, often overlooks the point that many policymakers, stakeholders and the general public do not really understand testing and/or the process. This helps lift the veil of secrecy, fosters needed discussion and helps us better measure what our educators teach.

If you believe in the importance of testing, your support of the Testing Transparency Act helps ensure that our public schools are not judged with the wrong assessment tools. If you do not support the Testing Transparency Act, you will be unable to bolster a case to create a different way of measuring school performance and support continued spending on statewide testing without having a chance to see the results. Senate Bill 753/House Bill 1246 is needed in Tennessee, and we encourage its passage.

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The War on Teachers

This piece from Chalkbeat describes education policy challenges in Indiana, but it could just as easily have been written about what has been and is happening here in Tennessee.

The story is based on a survey of school superintendents in Indiana. The school leaders are asked to talk about the challenges of finding and retaining teaching talent.

Here’s some of what they had to say:


Indiana’s war on teachers is winning


“Pay teachers more and offer better benefits. Respect the profession.”


“Overworked. Little or no pay raises in the past and none expected in the future.”


“The burnout rate increases because teachers are covering higher caseloads because of the shortage. Even when provided with an annual increase, overall morale of teachers in the state is low.”


The demands on teachers due to testing accountability makes it not worth teaching — takes the love and passion out of education.


“There is absolutely no incentive to stay in teaching or for that matter to pursue a degree in education. The pay is ridiculous. The demands are excessive. Teachers don’t really teach anymore, just test and retest. All the data-driven requirements are not successful in helping a student learn. Yes, we should have some testing but the sheer amount is ridiculous. I think we should go back to letting teachers teach. Let them be the professionals they were hired to be. ”


“There is a disconnect between what the state requires and what pre-service teachers are taught.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Tennessee has been facing a growing teacher shortage for years now. As early as 2014, it was noted:

Since 2009, Tennessee has identified shortages in the overall numbers of K-12 teachers needed for public schools as well as teachers for specific subjects. There is a critical need in the state for STEM teachers, as well as shortages in high school English, social studies, world languages, Pre-K through high school special education, and English as a second language

In other words, state policymakers have been predicting a teacher shortage for a decade now and instead of adopting policies to address it, have adopted policies that in the words of some are “driving teachers crazy.”

We have a testing system that simply doesn’t work.

We offer salaries that don’t compare favorably to the private sector.

Our state’s schools are poorly resourced and the state funding formula is broken.

Now, our Governor and some legislative leaders want to divert public money to unaccountable private schools.

Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Ask Nashville, a district that has seen a rise in virtual classrooms as it struggles to fill teaching positions.

It’s no wonder some teachers are considering a strike as an option to get the attention of lawmakers who so far have ignored their pleas.

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Hacker or Dump Truck

Another testing cycle, more TNReady trouble.

It’s time for testing in Tennessee again. Or, at least, it’s time for schools to begin the time-honored tradition of having students take practice tests to ensure that the state’s testing vendor is getting the job done and the online testing system will work.

Surprising exactly no one, some schools are reporting problems with the testing platform as their students begin practice testing. At least one school reported that at least half the students were unable to access the TNReady test during practice today.

This should definitely encourage students, teachers, and parents as we approach the test-heavy month of April.

Last year, we heard about dump trucks and hackers causing TNReady problems. It’s not clear what the planned excuses are this year.

Certainly, our new Commissioner of Education is working with her team of school choice advocates to devise this year’s round of fake TNReady stories. Then, they’ll come up with lies to tell the General Assembly so no real policy change takes place.

Seriously, though, if your school is or has been engaged in TNReady practice testing, I’d love to know how it’s going. Are you having problems? What are they? Let me know at andy@tnedreport.com


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REFUSED

A Knox County parent has refused to allow her children take the state’s failed TNReady tests each of the last four years. WBIR has more:


A Knox County parent says she has refused to let her kids take TNReady exams for four years.
Elizabeth MacTavish and her husband are educators, and she understands the stress of standardized testing as both a parent and a teacher. 


We are spending millions of dollars on a test that is neither reliable nor valid, the testing companies that we’ve been using continually fail,” MacTavish said. 
Over the past few years, TNReady has had some problems. 
In 2016 the original online testing system failed. In 2017 about 1,700 tests were scored incorrectly. 
In 2018, the state comptroller’s office says there were login delays, slow servers, and software bugs.
Now, the state is looking for a new vendor for TNReady testing. Tuesday, it issued a request for proposal for next school year.
The Department of Education expects the new contract to be $20 million each year. It’s current contract with Questar is $30 million

Former Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen, who presided over all the failed iterations of TNReady, perpetuated the myth that not testing annually would result in a penalty from the federal government. In fact, that’s not entirely accurate:

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.

Current Commissioner Penny Schwinn has demonstrated she’s not actually listening to parents and teachers as she travels around the state and visits schools. Instead, she is determined to continue to pursue a testing model that has failed students, teachers, and schools across the state.

More than 80% of teachers believe the state should move to the ACT suite of assessments to replace TNReady. A similar number believe TNReady does not accurately reflect student ability.

For now, the state marches on and nothing changes. But, if more parents took the refusal approach, the state could be forced to truly reckon with a broken system.

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Penny’s Problem

Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner has a problem. While she’s going around the state and supposedly listening to teachers and parents, she’s missing the key message: No one trusts TNReady.

Just this week, the Maury County School Board passed a resolution opposing the continued use of TNReady tests. The Maury County Education Association immediately announced support of the move. This comes as a new survey reveals an overwhelming majority of teachers don’t believe TNReady is an accurate reflection of student performance.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Schwinn is reassuring everyone that the next iteration of TNReady will be just fine, despite the fact a new vendor won’t be in place until 2019.

It’s a line we’ve all heard before. Failed Commissioner Candice McQueen often told us that we’d get TNReady right “this year.” But we never did. TNReady is never ready. It hasn’t been and it seems likely it won’t be.

To be fair, Schwinn inherited a hot mess in taking over the Tennessee Department of Education. That said, exhibiting real leadership requires that she make tough choices. Instead, she’s trotting out the same tired lines Tennesseans have heard year after year.

We have a new governor named Bill. Just like the last Bill who was our governor, this one has chosen an education commissioner who is putting her head in the sand instead of standing up and facing the very real policy problems impacting our schools.

TNReady has consistently failed our students, teachers, and communities. Groups across the state are sending this message loud and clear. Still, the highest levels of power are ignoring the screaming masses.

“Trust us one more time,” they say.

We’d don’t. We won’t. We can’t.

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Not Listening

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has been visiting schools around the state, but apparently, she’s NOT listening.

Here’s more from a visit she made to an elementary school in Bristol:


During a visit Thursday to Anderson Elementary School in Bristol, Tennessee, Schwinn emphasized a number of priorities. 
She said it’s essential the next vendor puts more safeguards in place to ensure testing goes smoothly.
“Certainly we’re going to hold the new vendor accountable,” said Schwinn. 

Additionally, Schwinn commented on the timeline for hiring a new testing vendor:


Schwinn said the bidding process for a new vendor will begin in a few weeks but they don’t plan to execute a new contract until September 2019. 

That’s right. There won’t even be a new testing vendor for the next iteration of TNReady until September of 2019. Students will start taking tests (at least EOC) by December. The September hiring also gives the new vendor just 8 months to prepare for the heavy testing month of April 2020.

Here’s the deal: No one trusts TNReady. Teachers tell us they don’t believe it accurately measures student performance. After a year of supposed hackers and imaginary dump trucks, students don’t take it seriously.

Schwinn is repeating lines used by former Commissioner Candice McQueen. She’s talking about safeguards and teacher resources when there are testing problems. Those of us who have actually been in Tennessee the past five years know what that means: Nothing will change.

How long will we tolerate a failed testing regime that provides little usable data and results in policy that’s bad for kids?

Good news, Tennesseans — the new Governor Bill is as tone deaf as the previous Governor Bill. Maybe he should stop sending out weekend reports from the farm and start actually talking to (and listening) to teachers and parents in our schools. Meanwhile, his handpicked Education Commissioner is demonstrating that while she might appear to be doing the right things (visiting schools, listening) she has a serious comprehension problem.

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Disconnect

According to the results of a recent survey of Tennessee teachers, there’s a huge disconnect between education practitioners and our state’s policymakers.

The Tennessee Education Association released the results of a survey of more than 5000 teachers indicating solid majorities have significant concerns about TNReady as well as the state’s portfolio evaluation system used for some teachers.

Here are some key findings:

When asked if they had a choice in state testing systems for end-of-course exams in their subject area, 87 percent of high school teachers said they would choose the ACT suite of assessments. Eighty-three percent of high school teachers rejected the notion that TNReady accurately measures student knowledge and Tennessee standards. 

Ninety-eight percent of Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers want to eliminate the current portfolio system or make fundamental changes with better teacher input. Among middle school teachers, most would like to see expanded use of benchmark testing used for RTI, followed by ACT. 

The TEA also points out some legislation is moving to address teacher concerns:

One of the key bills is HB383/SB488 filed by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), which would allow districts to administer the ACT, ACT Aspire or SAT tests as an approved testing alternative in math and English language arts for high school students.

While those on the front lines educating our children are asking for a move away from TNReady, Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has said she’s committed to getting TNReady right. While some legislators are finally getting the message, it seems Schwinn has not tuned-in to the very real concerns of our state’s teachers.

It will be interesting to see if Schwinn raises objections to legislation that would move Tennessee away from a failed testing regime.

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Lemon

It’s no real surprise that high stakes testing drives staffing practices in our state’s schools. Now, however, there’s evidence to support this widely-suspected claim.

Chalkbeat reports:

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

The Tennessee research lines up with similar research on high-stakes accountability systems based on tests in other states:

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

The research is based on data from teacher observations and student achievement scores (TVAAS). I’ve written before about the problems with using value-added data to accurately assess teacher quality. Unfortunately, those problems have yet to stop Tennessee from marching down this misguided path.

That said, let’s look at the impact of a policy where one test, TNReady, drives much of our practice. Principals are heavily incentivized to move low-performing teachers to grades and subjects that are not tested. We now have solid data suggesting that’s actually happening in Tennessee schools. The unintended consequence of a policy that relies on a single test to determine the value of a teacher, student, and school is that students end up being poorly served.

Oh, and of course, the test used to drive all this policy is TNReady. You know, that test our state STILL can’t get right despite trying really hard year after year?

Bad policy drives bad practice which is bad for kids.

We’ve known this for some time now…will any of our policymakers move to change it?

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