What Passes for Rigor

Nashville education blogger TC Weber takes on the recently released CREDO study of supposed student learning loss in his most recent post. It’s the study relied on by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn as she doubles down both on the need for kids to return to in-person instruction AND the critical need for ever more testing.

Here’s one paragraph that stood out to me:

Third, the need for rigorous student-level learning assessments has never been higher. In particular, this crisis needs strong diagnostic assessments and frequent progress checks, both of which must align with historical assessment trends to plot a recovery course. The losses presented here implicitly endorse a return to student achievement testing with the same assessment tools for the foreseeable future. At the same time, preserving and expanding the existing series is the only way to reliably track how well states and districts are moving their schools through recovery and into the future.

That’s directly from CREDO. Yes, they’re saying we need to continue with the testing regime we have. Since the folks at CREDO seem so interested in testing that aligns with “historical assessment trends,” let’s take a brief look at just how well testing has gone in Tennessee over the past few years.

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.

Here’s more from the TNNotReady chronicles:

Hackers. Dump Trucks. Lies. Three vendors over five years. A broken system that sucks the life out of instructional time. That’s what CREDO and Commissioner Schwinn want to continue. Make no mistake, this is not about what’s good for Tennessee kids – it’s most definitely about what’s good for national testing companies and the Commissioner’s career aspirations.

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

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Fiction is Magic

I spent some time recently talking with Bobby Nicholson of Knoxville-based ACT test prep company Outlier’s Advantage. Bobby’s company publishes a guide called “It Pays to Prep” outlining the various merit-based scholarships available at Tennessee public and private colleges and the criteria for being considered for those awards.

When I asked Bobby if there was any one secret ingredient to boosting ACT readiness, he said without hesitation that it’s reading fiction. Students should start reading fiction intentionally in middle school with a goal of having 100 fiction books read by their junior year (the key year for the ACT test).

Here’s the entire interview:

1) How did you decide to start It Pays to Prep?
We realized that so few parents or students understand how scholarships work now. When parents were in school, they had to fill out essays and applications for different scholarships. Now, so many scholarships are guaranteed. This means that if the student has the right ACT and GPA, they are guaranteed a certain amount of scholarship money at that school. We put the scholarships in an easy-to-read format so that parents understand how they work, and students are motivated to put in the work.

2) What do you see as the primary utility of your guide?
The primary utility of It Pays to Prep! is helping families understand how much money there is available to them if they get their ACT scores up. Many families are unaware that students don’t even need to have a high ACT or GPA. For example, Maryville College gives $19,000 a year ($76,000 over four years) for a 19 on the ACT. 

3) What’s the ONE thing you want families to know as they are preparing to send a child to college?
It will pay off tremendously if parents can get students reading fiction daily for at least 20 minutes by the start of middle school. Contrary to what most think, GPA is NOT a good indicator of success on the ACT. Ultimately, it is a timed test, and a student who reads twice as fast will score higher. A student who has 100 fiction novels under their belt by the time they hit their junior year will be in a great position to achieve a 28 or above. Students with less than 50 are usually going to score below a 24 no matter how good their GPA is. As unexpected as it may sound, reading fiction daily is the magic ingredient. 

4) How soon should kids start prepping for the ACT?
First, students need to understand that they need to have a minimum 3.5 weighted GPA from the beginning of freshman year if they plan on going to college. That is the minimum GPA requirement for most merit-based scholarships. Commonly, students enter high school unaware that their freshman year GPA matters, but students need to be committed to obtaining at least a 3.5 GPA from day one of high school. Early in their high school journey, they should also start to consider colleges that they might like to attend, too, because the minimum GPA required for merit-based scholarships may be higher than a 3.5. For example, UTK has a minimum 3.8 weighted GPA requirement for merit-based scholarships.
Next, students need to understand that they aren’t just preparing themselves to get into college: they are preparing to graduate from college. It is a little known that less than 60% of students who start college will graduate, which is a huge reason to be taking the most challenging classes. Even if they don’t do as well, they are preparing themselves for success and meeting the standards of a college curriculum. 
Lastly, we recommend that students start prepping for the ACT as soon as possible after they have completed algebra two and geometry. There are only four pre-calc/trigonometry questions per ACT, so it is unnecessary to hold off on starting ACT prep until students have completed those courses. Furthermore, the longer students wait after taking algebra two and geometry, the more likely they will forget the material that would increase their ACT score. 

5) What are some of the biggest myths you’ve heard about college and the ACT? 
Instead of myths, I’ll rephrase this as misunderstandings. 
Most schools tell students to guess C. However, the ACT knows that schools recommend guessing C. Therefore, on the last ten questions of the math test (where students are highly likely to be guessing), the ACT almost always puts fewer Cs than every other answer.
Most schools recommend skimming. However, most schools also don’t understand that this is a test of attention to detail. If students skim, they will be missing the exact things the ACT is going to be asking about. This will mean that most students won’t be able to finish the test in time, and this fact further advocates for why it’s so important to be reading fiction from a young age.
Most schools recommend trying to finish the test. However, most students will get more questions correct if they read more carefully, even if they don’t get to all the questions. Students will often rush through the questions at the beginning of the test, which are usually the easiest. This causes them to miss questions they could have gotten correct to get to the end of the test, where they are facing questions that they are much less likely to get right.
It is a myth that it is harder for students to increase their score once they get to a 26. The reality is that it is often harder to go from a 20 to a 26 than a 26 to a 32. The former typically involves learning a ton of grammar, math, reading speed, and study skills. The latter is often a matter of tying up loose ends and mastering timing.
Many people think the ACT is a hard test. The reality is that it is a test of the mastery level understanding of the basics. Everything a student needs to score a 30 or above on English, reading, and science has been taught by the end of 8th grade. 

6) How can families maximize their student’s potential no matter where they fall on the ACT score spectrum?
I may answer this question differently than you want, but we want to say a few things about this question in general.
First, a bad score doesn’t mean ANYTHING about a student’s potential. It is just a good score that says a lot.
Second, it has been our experience that nearly 100% of students with at least a 3.5 weighted GPA are capable of at least a 28 ACT score.
Third, MOST students don’t need to worry about a high ACT score. If students start at a community college, their ACT score (outside of getting the hope scholarship and testing out of developmental classes) will have almost no bearing once they transfer. Most colleges won’t even have a place to include ACT scores for transfer students. 
Students with below a 3.5 GPA only need to get a high enough ACT score to get accepted into their college of choice, and that required ACT score is probably way lower than it might seem. For example, UTK’s AVERAGE ACT score is usually around 29 for incoming first-year students. However, we have students get accepted all the time with 3.1 GPAs and a 24 ACT score. With that being said, these scores are often rising, so it’s better to err on the side of a higher score, but UTK is one of the most competitive schools in the state. There are still lots of schools where a 19 ACT score will be enough. 
Therefore, the main students who need to focus on getting as high of an ACT score as possible are those who have at least a 3.5 weighted GPA and are trying to earn scholarship money or get accepted into a competitive school. Everyone else can maximize their student’s potential by getting them thinking about the future they want to create for themselves. A great program to help them do that is called the future authoring program. 

Check out It Pays to Prep!

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


Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme is unconstitutional, according to a decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The Tennessean has more:

Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program took another hit Tuesday, with the Tennessee Court of Appeals upholding a lower court’s decision that the controversial plan is unconstitutional. 

A three-member panel of the Court of Appeals upheld a previous decision by Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Anne Martin, who ruled against the school-voucher law because it only applies to Memphis and Nashville

“Davidson and Shelby counties sued the State of Tennessee to challenge the constitutionality of the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program. The trial court found that both counties had standing and that the act was unconstitutional,” said Judge Andy Bennett, who delivered the court’s opinion Tuesday. “The State and intervening defendants appealed. We affirm.”

Capitol Hill observers expect Lee to present a new voucher scheme to the legislature in the 2021 session.

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A Post-Pandemic Dream

School Board member Emily Masters has a dream. It’s a dream of a Nashville that actually values public education. With actual money. Like dollars. Lots of them. She writes about this dream in a recent blog post.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

Shouting “kids need to be in school” is about as helpful as shouting “this virus needs to go away.” As of September 10th, children accounted for 9.2% of the 166,587 positive Covid cases in Tennessee. 208 of the 7,444 Covid-related hospitalizations in the state were children. Of the 1,931 deaths from Covid in Tennessee, .02% were children. Statistically insignificant, right? Probably not to the friends and families of the 5 children who died.

Simply insisting “kids need to be in school” and hoping for the best won’t eliminate the risk that teachers, family members, and even some children may become seriously ill or even die from the virus.

For more than a decade Nashville schools have not received full funding, yet now the additional costs for virtual school technology and Covid-related safety measures must be covered. If schools, families, and the entire community can work together to get through this, then perhaps the stage will be set for a real change post-pandemic: a Nashville that places value on education above all else and recognizes that the benefits of fully funding and resourcing schools will resonate throughout the entire community for years to come.  


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

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Nothing to Reassure Me

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is doing a lot of apologizing, but not much in the way of reassuring district leaders that she knows what the hell is going on in our state’s schools. TC Weber has more on Schwinn’s recent antics around data as it relates to “learning loss” and COVID-19.

Media outlets quickly took up the clairion call of pending doom and gloom. Most choosing to go with the headline on the TNDOE’s press release – Tennessee Releases Data Showing Significant Learning Loss Among K-12 Students. In their rush to sound the alarm, few noted that the state did not release any data, merely statements from Department leaders. But superintendents certainly noticed.

Their response was equally fast and furious. So much so that, Commissioner Schwinn was forced to send them an attempt-to-clarify email and schedule an afternoon ZOOM call with Dale Lynch and TOSS.

And, the always on-point Haywood County Director of Schools Joey Hassell for the win:

“The e-mail did provide context for the data shared in the release on Wednesday; however, it did nothing to reassure me that we could trust the department or expect a public apology regarding an ill advised press release.”

How long… how long must we sing this song?

MORE from TC Weber>

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Where Did This Data Come From?

Haywood County’s Director of Schools (Joey Hassell) always asks the important questions. He’s a former Assistant Commissioner for Special Education at the Tennessee Department of Education, so he’s familiar with how the education policy game is played in Nashville. Fellow blogger TC Weber reports on the questions surrounding Schwinn’s manipulation of data to fit her narrative:

What I’m referring to, of course, is the Governor’s press conference where Lee and Schwinn handed out information that indicated Tennessee’s students were suffering a decrease in learning proficiency of 50% in literacy and 65%. The information was alarming but should have raised questions about how it was arrived at. As quoted by Chalkbeat,

“My biggest question is, where did this data come from? What districts provided it?” asked Joey Hassell, superintendent of schools in Haywood County, near Memphis. “We have not provided any data and, as far as I know, the state has not asked for it.”

According to the online magazine Center Square – who is currently providing some of the best coverage available on Tennessee Education issues – projections were developed from a study by the department conducted with national researchers in June of how students were projected to perform this year. Chalkbeat went a little further, pointing out that she also cited early diagnostic testing data voluntarily provided by some school districts, as well as the results of an optional state assessment that more than 30,000 students statewide reportedly took at the beginning of the academic year. None of which was provided to district leaders or members of the media.


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Inherently Unstable

That’s how TEA’s top lobbyist described the state’s teacher evaluation system that is based on so-called “value-added” modeling. The remarks were made during testimony before the House Education Committee. Here’s more from a TEA Facebook post:


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Do Something

This piece by leaders of Pastors for Tennessee Children exposes the failed agenda of school privatizers and offers a path forward that involves meaningful investment in Tennessee public schools.

When meeting with elected leaders tasked with improving education in Tennessee, we have heard a common refrain: “We have to do something.”

In response to public education challenges, our state has tried various “solutions,” almost all of which have involved privatization: vouchers, charter schools, excessive for-profit standardized testing, and expensive curriculums.

None of these options has made a sustainable difference. In fact, vouchers and charter schools have made it worse, serving to exacerbate existing inequities in school systems by draining desperately needed funding from the neighborhood schools that serve around 90% of Tennessee’s students.

Often, the real impetus behind these privatization efforts is not the well-being of children, but a desire for personal profit.


MORE on the schemes privatizers are pushing in Tennessee:

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Gross Misrepresentation

That’s how one school district leader described Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s recent statements on learning loss as a result of school schedule changes related to COVID-19. Chalkbeat has more:

Pre-pandemic test data analyzed by national researchers — not recent back-to-school test results from Tennessee students — was the basis for state projections this week that proficiency rates will drop by 50% or more for third-grade reading and math due to schooling disruptions during the pandemic.

Schwinn had said her estimates were informed by back-to-school testing data that was voluntarily shared by some Tennessee school districts, combined with national study and analysis by two groups. But asked later for details, members of her staff referred only to “national researchers using historical, Tennessee-specific data.” That data dates from 2014 to 2019, before the coronavirus emerged in the U.S.

Numerous superintendents said Schwinn’s comments were misleading in suggesting that recent homegrown data was taken into account in formulating the state’s projections.

“This is about doing your homework,” said Leah Watkins, superintendent of Henry County Schools in West Tennessee. “Before the state releases numbers to millions of Tennesseans, let’s make sure it’s accurate and shared with appropriate context.”

She called the presentation a “gross misrepresentation” that left out important facts.

“It sends a message to the public of gloom and doom — that what we’re doing in our public schools is not adequate,” Watkins said.


Perhaps Commissioner Schwinn is borrowing from the McQueen playbook when it comes to her relationship with the facts.

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