Not So Harmless

After a fourth day of TNReady trouble, the Tennessee General Assembly took action today to make changes to how the test impacts schools, students, and teachers.

While some are billing the report of a joint committee of the House and Senate as a “hold harmless” for schools, students, and teachers, that’s not entirely accurate.

Also, the legislature stopped short of putting a stop to TNReady entirely, claiming federal law “requires” them to test students.

Here’s the deal: Federal law does say that districts should administer tests to at least 95% of students and that states should test all students in reading and math from grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, with a suggestion for additional high school testing as appropriate.

BUT: Is there really a penalty for districts (or states) where the testing threshold falls below 95%?

As I reported in 2016, the last time we had a major failure of online testing in Tennessee:

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.

In other words, the likelihood of a single Tennessee district losing funds due to stopping a test that isn’t working is very close to zero. Tennessee is not having problems due to opt-outs or a low number of students being tested. Kids in districts across the state are showing up for a test that is not happening. Districts are doing everything right and a vendor and the Tennessee Department of Education are failing to serve students. Unless TNDOE is going to fine districts, there is truly no risk of funds being lost.

Now, about the “hold harmless” law (pictured below):

  1. The law does say that districts and schools will not receive an “A-F” score based on the results of this year’s test. It also says schools can’t be placed on the state’s priority list based on the scores. That’s good news.
  2. The law gives districts the option of not counting this year’s scores in student grades. Some districts had already said they wouldn’t count the test due to the likelihood the scores would arrive late. Now, all districts can take this action if they choose.
  3. The law says any score generated for teachers based on this year’s test cannot be used in employment/compensation decisions.

Here’s what the law didn’t say: There will be NO TVAAS scores for teachers this year based on this data.

Commissioner McQueen said yesterday that the data from these tests will be used to generate a TVAAS score and it will count for 20% of a teacher’s evaluation. This law does NOT change that. It just says if you get a low score based on this number, you can’t be fired or denied compensation.

Below is an excerpt from current law (taken from TCA 49-1-302, the section governing teacher evaluation):

(E)  For teachers with access to individual data representative of student growth as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii), the following provisions shall apply:

  • (i)  In the 2016-2017 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 school year shall account for ten percent (10%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (ii)  In the 2017-2018 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years shall account for twenty percent (20%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (iii)  In the 2018-2019 school year and thereafter, the student growth component of the evaluation criteria shall be determined under subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii);
  • (iv)  The most recent year’s student growth evaluation composite shall account for the full thirty-five percent (35%) of growth data required in a teacher’s evaluation if such use results in a higher evaluation score;
  • (v)  For the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 school years, student growth evaluation composites generated by assessments administered in the 2015-2016 school year shall be excluded from the student growth measure as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) if such exclusion results in a higher evaluation score for the teacher or principal. The qualitative portion of the evaluation shall be increased to account for any necessary reduction to the student growth measure.

Here’s what this means: If the current tests give you a “good” evaluation score, it will count for 35% of your total evaluation. If the score is not “good,” it only counts for 20% this year. The legislation adopted today by way of the Conference Committee does NOT change that.

In other words, the test data from the 2017-18 administration of TNReady WILL count in a teacher’s evaluation.

Here’s why that matters: An educator’s evaluation score factors into the number of observations they have each year as well as Professional Development Points (PDPs). PDPs are needed for license advancement or renewal.

The Department of Education addresses PDPs and notes:

Overall level of effectiveness rating (approved TN model) Overall Score of 5 = 20 PDPs
Overall Score of 4 = 15 PDPs

Overall Score of 3 = 10 PDPs

Information is maintained by the department. No additional documentation is required; points may be accrued annually.

Even if this year’s scores only end up counting 20%, that’s enough to change a teacher’s overall TEAM rating by a level. A TEAM score below a three means no PDPs, for example. The overall TEAM score also impacts the number of observations a teacher has in a year — which also places an additional burden on administrators.

Also, districts now have to meet to decide how to handle the tests and student grades. For some, that decision has already been made. For others, this will require a meeting in pretty short order to let students, parents, and teachers know what’s happening.

Here’s the language of the conference committee report:

 

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BREAKING: TNReady Day 4 – DOWN

In a developing story, at least eleven school systems across Tennessee are reporting problems with TNReady testing today. The problems include difficulty logging on and errors when attempting to submit completed tests.

While individual schools in some of these districts have been able to complete tests, most of the districts report widespread problems. The problems include several large districts, including Knox County, Davidson County, Rutherford County, and Sumner County.

The testing day was reportedly relatively smooth yesterday, when a number of large systems did not take the test.

More as this continuing saga unfolds.

UPDATE: 12:41 PM

Tennessee House of Representatives votes to delay budget vote until there is action on TNReady. Some are calling for the suspension of the test this year.

UPDATE: 1:03 PM  State says issue is “resolved”

The state of Tennessee plans to push ahead with testing, despite significant problems for students on three of the four days of statewide administration. The state says the current issue is “resolved” and that things are back to normal.

Here’s what “normal” looks like when you have these kind of delays.

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Third Time’s No Charm

Today was Day Three of statewide testing in Tennessee — TNReady. Let’s just say that the first two days didn’t go so well.

After a serious malfunction on Monday, the state’s testing vendor claimed it was hacked yesterday. So, students around the state were unable to complete scheduled tests.

The hacking allegation raises concerns over privacy, and one parent has had enough.

Now, though, the state is sure things are worked out and Day Three is all set — smooth and problem-free.

In fact, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen testified before a House Committee today and apologized for the two days of problems. She also refused to resign and suggested that because today’s testing was going well, things were back on track. That is, nothing to worry about. She stated she believes the test results can be valid, and can be used in a valid way to evaluate teacher and school performance. Except, even in the best case scenario, that’s wrong.

Here’s the deal: There were scattered reports of issues today, including difficulty logging on and at least five districts requiring some form of tech support. If there had been no other problems this week, that would seem very minor. Taken in context, however, it’s concerning that after these past two days, some districts/schools are still struggling.

I also received one report from a middle Tennessee district that said students in middle grades (5-8) were receiving the wrong grade level tests. While unconfirmed, again, it raises questions in light of earlier challenges this week.

It’s also worth noting that several districts, including two large districts (Williamson, Rutherford) suspended testing for today. That means they weren’t trying to access the system. If the problem the past two days was system overload, a significant reduction in attempts would certainly impact that, possibly allowing the test to go forward today with only minor issues. What will happen tomorrow as those systems join the rest of the state?

Finally, even in systems reporting that the test went smoothly today, here’s what that means at an individual school:

Just a quick update as to where we are on testing and what to expect in the next few days.

We will be on a regular bell schedule both tomorrow and Friday. Due to the number of “Incomplete” tests that did not submit and those that did not get logged on, it has taken a considerable amount of time to get each logged on, trouble shoot and then submit their Writing portion of the test today. We still have close to 97 students to complete tomorrow. Many of these just needed to be recovered and submitted,but this requires time for the administrator to sit with each student and ensure that it does submit successfully.

With that being said, the TDOE has extended the testing window so that we can push back some and get this portion complete prior to moving forward. The Writing portion of the TNReady Test must be submitted prior to being able to move to part 2, 3 and 4 of ELA and has a much earlier required submission date than all of the other tests. We will work tomorrow(Thursday) to get these 97 students caught up and finished and then move ahead to the Math test beginning on Monday as planned. Barring any further disruptions of the testing platform, we will be on our previously announced testing schedule for next week. We will then pick up the remaining ELA testing the following week and will get that information out to you as quickly as we can.

The disruption caused by the testing failures on Monday and Tuesday has far-reaching impact. This message from a principal to parents explains the headache of rearranging schedules and resubmitting the tests.

The bottom line: This year’s online testing may be useful for testing the platform and working out bugs, but it is not a valid indicator of student progress or teacher performance. It certainly shouldn’t be used in any school accountability measures.

Commissioner McQueen seems unfazed by logic, however, and insists we can plow right ahead with these scores and use them to judge teacher performance, and even include them in student grades if a district chooses.

No, the third time wasn’t a charm in Tennessee, no matter what the failed Commissioner says.

 

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TNReady Groundhog Day

It’s Day Two of statewide TNReady testing and despite reassurances following yesterday’s disaster, districts across the state are reporting problems and suspending testing.

Nashvillle, Williamson County, Wilson County, Rutherford County, Sumner County, and Chester County have all reported problems. Students are having difficulty logging on in some cases and in others, students complete an entire test but are unable to submit.

Yesterday, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen said:

“We understand many of you suspended testing today, and we apologize for the unanticipated scheduling changes this issue may have caused,” she said in an email dispatched to district administrators. “…We feel good going into testing tomorrow.”

No, you don’t understand. No, you’re not sorry. This keeps happening. Year after year. Kids went to school yesterday ready to “test like a champion,” and then, nothing happened.

Kids went back today ready to “try again,” and nothing happened.

Word is, Commissioner McQueen is conferencing with districts now. Unless she’s saying we are going to end testing this year and that she’s resigning, I’m not sure how comforting her words can be.

Here’s a tip for Directors of Schools: Don’t believe what she tells you. There’s a clear and disastrous track record when it comes to McQueen and testing.

UPDATE: 10:32 AM

The Department of Education reports the issue is statewide and has issued this statement:

 

UPDATE: Haywood County Director calls on state to immediately suspend all TNReady testing this year>

has suspended testing AGAIN! We need our leadership to step up & suspend testing statewide. It is a statewide issue. Schools, teachers, & students will all be evaluated based on state assessment. Press pause , please!

UPDATE: 3:05 PM Arlington Schools “concerned”

As many of you are aware, TNReady online testing has been severely impacted across the state. The state required grades 9-12 to test online while it remained optional for grades 5-8. We opted out of online testing where available, therefore, grades 2-8 have not been impacted.

With this being the inaugural year of online testing for all high schools, we anticipated the potential for difficulties in the statewide implementation, so we did not schedule online tests to begin until Wednesday for safe measure.

At the time of this release, the Tennessee Department of Education has resumed all testing. We are scheduled to begin online testing at the high school tomorrow and are continuing to get updates from the TDOE. We will proceed according to those updates.

However, we are deeply concerned what impact this may have on our teachers and students and are currently monitoring that impact with other districts across the state.

We’ll update you as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 3:09 PM – Williamson County Suspends Until Thursday

Only third and fourth grade students taking the paper TNReady tests will continue testing Wednesday. All online testing has been postponed. A decision regarding online testing will be made Wednesday afternoon. WCS hopes to resume online testing on Thursday.

UPDATE: 3:15 PM — TNDOE Says Everything Will be OK Tomorrow:

UPDATE: Lamberth legislation – 

Today I filed an amendment to end computerized testing in Tennessee and return to paper tests. For four years this system has failed our hard working students, teachers and parents and I’m finished with it. The amendment will be heard this afternoon on the House floor. — State Rep. William Lamberth of Sumner County

Stay tuned as more develops with this story.

 

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Understatement

Today was to be the first day of the second attempt at large scale statewide online testing (TNReady) after the first attempt failed miserably two years ago.

Despite assurances from the Department of Education and new testing vendor (with a $100 million+ contract) Questar, the morning did NOT go smoothly.

Now, however, the TNDOE suggests everything is fine and tomorrow will be better.

Chalkbeat reports:

By the end of the school day, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was looking ahead to the next day.

“We understand many of you suspended testing today, and we apologize for the unanticipated scheduling changes this issue may have caused,” she said in an email dispatched to district administrators. “…We feel good going into testing tomorrow.”

But the opening-day episode renewed mass frustration in a state that is no stranger to online testing glitches. Two years ago, technical snafus derailed a wholesale switch to testing on digital devices, prompting McQueen to fire the state’s testing company and cancel TNReady for grades 3-8.

Frustration is an understatement. We’ve had four consecutive years with some TNReady problem. This marks year five. I wrote in October:

Let’s start from the beginning. Which was supposed to be 2016. Except it didn’t happen. And then it kept not happening. For full disclosure, I have a child who was in 4th grade at the time of what was to be the inaugural year of TNReady. The frustration of watching her prepare for a week of testing only to be told it would happen later and then later and then maybe never was infuriating. That adults at decision-making levels think it is just fine to treat students that way is telling. It also says something that when some adults try to stand up for their students, they are smacked down by our Commissioner of Education.

My daughter is now in 6th grade. Here we go again. She expressed some mild test anxiety over the weekend and was not exactly excited about TNReady today. Nothing to be worried about, though, unless there’s some problem with the test again.

BAM! Today starts and there’s a testing problem and the school day and overall testing schedule gets rearranged.

Here’s the good news: In math, my daughter did a hands-on project to better understand and demonstrate geometry concepts. When she went to science, the class worked in groups to create a board game.

She was excited to tell me about the work she’d done when I picked her up today. Excited! Parents of a child who is almost 12 can relate: When you pick up your kid and they are fired up (in a good way) about what happened at school, that’s huge.

My question: Why can’t she spend the rest of this week doing hands-on projects to demonstrate what she’s learned this year? Some form of project-based assessment would be far superior to the annual headache that TNReady has become.

Instead, the state says it’s all fine and things will resume as normal later in the week.

I’m sorry, but normal the last five years has been nothing short of a disaster.

It’s time for something new. The apologies and reassurances only work for so long. Will my child complete her Tennessee public school education experience with a successfully administered TNReady test that includes returning results in a timely fashion? The track record suggests the answer is NO.

So, kids out there, get ready to go back to the testing this week. Adults in our state think this is what’s best for you. Or, for them. Or, they just can’t admit they were wrong.

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


 

BREAKING: TNReady NOT Ready…AGAIN (UPDATE)

Reports from school districts across Tennessee indicate that the state’s online TNReady platform is failing. This despite promises from the Tennessee Department of Education that all would go smoothly this week.

Update: 11:18 — Message from the TN Department of Education:

We share the frustration that earlier today some students had issues logging into Nextera to take TNReady. This issue has been resolved, and more than 25,000 students have now successfully completed TNReady exams. Testing has resumed across the state and thousands of students are on the platform now without any challenges. No server has crashed, and this issue was not due to volume. Our partners at Questar have worked quickly to resolve the issue.

UPDATE: 11:57 AM — Message from a middle Tennessee school principal:

Teachers and staff I know it is difficult to accept another apparent fiasco with school wide testing. I appreciate your patience but I do understand the frustration with the testing platform. We will discontinue standardized testing until we can get confirmation that the testing platform is operational without mishaps for students trying to take the EOC assessments. My understanding is the problem lies with the vendor, Quesstar  and not with MNPS IT connectivity or bandwidth. The school will turn in submit an irregularity form for the entire English I subpart I. I do not have an answer on the remaining subparts of English I EOC. I will keep you informed as new information is relayed for the office of research and accountability. Please keep the EOC packet that you received last week, modifications to the testing schedule will be made as soon as guidance from the central office is made available.

And a note from a high school teacher:

I teach 10th grade English, and even though I’ve told my students we’ve been assured by the state of TN that this year’s tests will work they log on, they are skeptical. And now on our first day of testing – our 9th graders attempted to take the writing portion of the English test today – many of our students weren’t successful. So my 10th graders, who are supposed to test tomorrow, are wondering what the point is. They don’t have any faith in the system.

UPDATE 12:34 PM: Wilson County Schools suspended testing in grades 6-12 today and there’s this statement from Williamson County:

Williamson County Schools 12:25 email:

“The Tennessee Department of Education experienced some difficulties across the State with online TNReady grades 5-11 testing that began today. WCS students who were able to access the system completed the test, but most could not access their tests. At this point, we have not yet received an explanation as to why some students could access the system while others could not. WCS will attempt to test again tomorrow. Third and fourth graders took TNReady on paper and were not affected.

Carol Birdsong
Communications Director”

UPDATE: 4:02 PM — Coffee County resumed testing after lunch with no problems.

UPDATE: 4:15 PM — Cheatham County Schools: TNReady testing kicked off today. There were some glitches this morning with the state testing platform. The state corrected the issues & we were able to test successfully this afternoon. The district anticipates that all will go well on Tuesday.

Stay tuned as this story develops.

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


 

Danger Ahead?

As Tennessee prepares to test more students than ever via an online platform, there are some signs of potential trouble.

Chalkbeat reports:

State officials said Thursday they are confident the new digital platform will work under heavy traffic, even as their new testing vendor, Questar, had headaches administering computer-based tests in New York on Wednesday. Some students there struggled to log on and submit their exam responses — issues that Questar leaders blamed on a separate company providing the computer infrastructure that hosts the tests.

 

Tennessee officials say they are working with Questar to ensure similar problems don’t occur in Tennessee. They also point out our online testing infrastructure is different and that Questar will have troubleshooting staff in the state during the test administration.

Here’s the problem: Across multiple testing vendors and dating back to TCAP, Tennessee has had problems with testing. This includes the now perennial issue of not being able to deliver scores back to districts in a timely manner. In fact, in December, districts were told scores might not be back in a timely fashion this year, either.

It’s possible the state and Questar have all the issues worked out and this year’s test administration will be nearly flawless. However, the record over the past few years is not encouraging.

Then, there’s the issue of what happens with the results. If they are available for factoring into student scores, it is up to districts to choose the method. I’ve written before about why that’s problematic. Here’s a quick summary:

The cube root method yielded on average a quick score, the score that goes for a grade, of 4.46 points higher. In other words, a studentscoring basic with a raw score of 30 or higher would, on average, receive an extra 4.46% on their final quick score grade, which goes on their report card. A student who scored a 70 last year could expect to receive a 74 under the new quick score calculation.

The additional points do drop as one goes up the raw score scale, however. For the average basic student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 30 and 47, they would receive an extra 5.41 extra points under the new method.

The average proficient student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 48 and 60 would get 4.32 extra points under the new method.

The average advanced student grades 3-8 with a raw score of between 61 and 67 would receive an extra 1.97 extra points under the new method.

The difference varies much more widely for below basic students, but the difference can be as much as 25 points in some cases.

So, for those districts using quick scores in report cards, there could be a wide variance across districts depending on the method chosen. It seems to me, districts should have already communicated to families how they will calculate quick scores with some justification for that choice. Alternatively, the state could have (should have?) mandated a method so that there is score consistency across the state.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of using these scores in teacher evaluation. Let’s say testing goes well this year. This would be the first year of a test without problems. If that happens, this should serve as the baseline for any test-based teacher evaluation. Yes, I think using value-added scores is a misguided approach, but if Tennessee is going to go this route, the state ought to take steps to ensure the data is as accurate as possible. That would require at least three years of successful test administration. So far, we have zero.

If TNReady is a great test that has the potential to offer us useful insight into student learning, it’s worth taking the time to get it right. So far, it seems Tennessee has yet to learn the lesson of the NAEP outlier — we don’t need rapid acceleration, we need to be patient, take our time, and focus.

 

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Outlier

Statisticians define an outlier as an observation point that is distant from other observations in a statistical analysis. Often, this occurs by chance. Additional modeling or deeper analysis (including more data, for example, or a longer range of data) can often correct for this. Outliers that are not the result of measurement error are often excluded from analysis about a data set.

Today, the 2017 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released. This release made me think of a particular outlier.

Back in 2013, Tennessee demonstrated what some heralded as an incredible achievement on the NAEP. In fact, a press release from Governor Haslam at the time noted:

Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Tennessee had the largest academic growth on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of any state, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation. (emphasis added)

Those words — “fastest improving state in the nation” — have been uttered by Haslam and many political leaders in our state for years now. Often, this 2013 “success” is used as justification for “keeping our foot on the gas” and continuing an aggressive agenda of test-based accountability and teacher evaluation based on methods lacking validity.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2013 when these results were released:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Two years later, when the 2015 results were released, I noted:

This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

Fast forward to today. The leveling off I suggested was likely back in 2013 has happened. In fact, take a look at this chart put out by the Tennessee Department of Education:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

All of this to say: You can’t say you’re the fastest-improving state on NAEP based on one testing cycle. You also shouldn’t make long-term policy decisions based on seemingly fabulous results in one testing cycle. Since 2013, Tennessee has doubled down on reforms with what now appears to be little positive result. Instead, as Rep. Jeremy Faison said recently, our policies are “driving teachers crazy.”

Oh, and that new TNReady test has so far not been very ready.

But what about the good policy coming from this? You know, like Governor Haslam’s plan to make Tennessee the “fastest-improving state in teacher pay?”

About that:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

Surely, though, all this focus on education since the NAEP buzz has meant meaningful investment in schools, right? Well, no:

Tennessee earns a grade of F when it comes to funding effort compared to funding ability. The researchers looked at Gross State Product and Personal Income data in order to determine a state’s funding ability then looked at dollars spent per $1000 (in either GSP or Personal Income) to determine effort. Tennessee spends $29 on schools for every $1000 generated in Gross State Product. When it comes to Personal Income, Tennessee spends just $33 per $1000 of average personal income. That’s a rank of 42 in both.

Then, the report looks at wage competitiveness — how much teachers earn relative to similarly-educated professionals. I’ve written about this before, and Tennessee typically doesn’t do well in this regard.

Maybe we’ve taken a minute to get serious about investing in programs targeting struggling students? Also, no:

One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Maybe we are closing achievement gaps? Again, no.

Back in 2013, Tennessee students eligible for free/reduced lunch had an average NAEP reading score of 256 and scored 20 points below the non-eligible students. Now, that average score is 252 (four points worse) and 19 points below. For 4th grade, there’s a similar story, with free/reduced lunch eligible students scoring 25 points below their non-eligible peers this year. Four years ago, it was 26 points.

We’re not moving the needle. Our most vulnerable students continue to be left behind. Meanwhile, we hear nice words from top policymakers and see little actual result in terms of tangible improved investment in schools or any meaningful upgrade in teacher pay. Our testing system has yet to be proven.

Maybe now Tennessee policymakers will stop repeating the “fastest-improving” line and start doing the actual work of investing in and supporting our schools.

In any case, the next time you hear someone spout off that tired “fastest-improving” line, just yell back: OUTLIER!

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


 

Personally

It’s that time of year again. The time when the Tennessee Department of Education asks teachers for feedback so they can compile it and put into pretty graphs and ignore absolutely all of the responses.

Well, one teacher from Sumner County received an email about having not yet responded. Here it is:

My name is Isaiah Bailey, and I am part of a team working to amplify educators’ voices through various means, including the annual Tennessee Educator Survey. I consider it an honor to be so deeply engaged with advancing the interests of Tennessee educators, and look forward to continuing this work.

I have included your personalized Tennessee Educator Survey link here. I understand that you may have been asked to complete various other surveys around this time of year, and I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. Please note that this is the same survey for which you received an invitation from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance.

More than 31,000 educators around the state have already shared their thoughts on various issues including school climate, testing, professional learning, and more via this year’s survey. But given that the current teacher participation rate for Sumner County is 38 percent, it feels especially important that this survey incorporate more of the perspectives that only you and your colleagues in Sumner County can speak to.

At the same time, the current teacher participation rate for your school is 34%. If your school reaches at least 67 percent by the end of the day tomorrow, your staff will become eligible for a drawing that will award several grants of $500 to be used toward staff appreciation.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Since Mr. Bailey asked, this teacher responded:

Isaiah,
Thank you for personally reaching out. I have some thoughts I’d like to share.
First, as a veteran educator, I’m familiar with the adage that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
You are correct, I have not responded to the state’s survey. Your email indicates that a majority of my colleagues at my school and in my district have not responded, either.
Here’s why: The Tennessee Department of Education has demonstrated time and again that you don’t care.
Teachers speak out on testing, portfolios, RTI, adequate resources, and pay – and year after year we are ignored.
Teachers inquire about the validity of measures such as TVAAS and we are ignored.
Teachers clamor for schools staffed with guidance counselors and nurses to care for the children we teach, and we are ignored.
I’ve filled out this survey in the past, and nothing has changed.
Tennessee keeps building the plane while it is flying — this is unacceptable.
You asked for my personal perspective. Now, you have it.
I’d suggest you share it with your bosses, but I know that even if you did, nothing would change.
Now, I’ll go back to showing my students I care — about them, their interests, their futures.
It seems Mr. Bailey and the TDOE broke a key rule — don’t ask a question if you don’t actually want the answer.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

It City?

I wrote a post about teacher pay over at Strong Schools — a non-profit I co-founded to focus on school funding in Sumner County. On reflection, I thought it might be interesting to those following education issues in Nashville and surrounding counties.

The post takes a look at teacher pay in 11 middle Tennessee school systems (Nashville and systems directly around Nashville). I’ve written before about the problems Nashville has had recruiting and retaining teachers. More recently, MNPS has announced some budget challenges. TC Weber has more on the details of the MNPS budget.

The bottom line: Nashville is not exactly the “It City” for teachers in middle Tennessee when it comes to the best financial package for teachers.

Here’s the breakdown of teacher pay in those 11 middle Tennessee districts:

Franklin          $52,446

Lebanon         $52,013

Murfreesboro $51,429

Montgomery   $50,377

Davidson         $49,918

Williamson       $49,489

Rutherford       $49,065

Wilson              $47,900

Sumner             $45,013

Cheatham         $44,907

Robertson         $43,684

These figures represent average teacher salary as reported by the Tennessee Department of Education. Notice that Nashville is ranked 5th in average pay.

As part of the analysis, I also took a look at the issue of health insurance. That’s a significant benefit that can help overcome otherwise low pay. Here again, even with pay + insurance, Nashville ranks fifth:

Williamson        $61,512

Franklin            $60,707

Rutherford        $60,439

Montgomery    $59,964

Davidson          $59,154

Lebanon           $58,918

Murfreesboro   $57,337

Sumner             $55,999

Wilson              $54,515

Cheatham        $52,888

Robertson        $52,670

So, new teachers considering a teaching career in the Nashville area have four options just outside of the city where they can earn better overall compensation. The problem with compensation is compounded by a rapidly rising cost of living, pricing many teachers out of being able to live in Nashville.

Oh, and it is tough to the “It City” for teachers when other cities are already doing a much better job in terms of teacher pay.

Anyway, Nashville has a half billion dollar convention center that is very nice and will soon invest in a soccer stadium, which I’m sure will be awesome. Somehow, the city can’t figure out how to adequately compensate educators or even provide safe drinking water and lunch to students.

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