Too Rich to Pay

I reported earlier on the struggles Williamson County is facing in properly funding schools. As budget crunch time approaches, it seems the County Commission there is unlikely to approve a small property tax increase in  order to fund the school system’s budget request.

The Williamson Herald reports:

The Williamson County Board of Education participated in a tough discussion Thursday, regarding the necessity of cutting key new staff positions and services in order to fulfill the Williamson County Commission Budget Committee’s request to cut the school budget by $5 million.

The CCBC voted 4-1 earlier this spring to cut the school district’s budget in order to avoid a county property tax increase.

However, WCS Director of Schools Mike Looney said that in order to avoid a tax increase, an additional $1 million reduction is needed, totaling a $6 million decrease in the school board’s proposed operational budget, resulting in a reduction from $343 million to $337 million.

The story notes that the school system will cut nearly $2 million worth of new positions and services and make cuts to employee insurance to cover the rest of the shortfall.

Here’s what’s interesting: A property tax increase of 6 cents would basically cover the projected shortfall. Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in Middle Tennessee. It’s 35 cents lower than the second-lowest, which is Sumner County. A 6 cent increase would mean Williamson’s tax rate would still be the lowest, and still be 29 cents lower than Sumner. It would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at $400,000 roughly $60 a year.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in Tennessee. The school system there has always been a source of pride. Now, County Commissioners are quibbling over a few million dollars in order to avoid a tiny tax increase. The message: We can do great things for kids as long as we don’t have to pay more. Keeping taxes 35 cents lower than the next lowest county is more important than fully funding a budget request designed to improve services to a rapidly growing district.

Williamson County can afford to fully fund this proposed budget for schools. They can do it and still have the lowest tax rate in Middle Tennessee by nearly 30 cents. So far, it looks as if they aren’t willing to make that commitment.

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


 

A Little Less Creepy

Two years ago I wrote about Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) creeping beyond its original mission. I noted then that the state’s Race to the Top grant which spawned the ASD envisioned a handful of schools receiving highly targeted attention. I argued that rapid growth and a lack of clear communication contributed to a bumpy start for the turnaround effort. I concluded by offering this suggestion:

By creeping beyond its admirable mission, the ASD has become an example of good intentions gone awry. Focusing on the original goal of using highly focused effort to both improve struggling schools AND learn new strategies to help other schools would be a welcome change.

Now, Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports the ASD is being scaled back and re-focused. She notes:

In Tennessee’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings with new policies approved this spring by the legislature. They address longstanding concerns, including complaints that the state district had moved beyond its original purpose, lacked a clear exit strategy, and didn’t give local districts enough time to execute their own turnaround plans.

McQueen also announced plans to downsize the ASD’s structure this summer by slashing its team and merging several ASD-related offices in Memphis.

It will be interesting to watch how the “new” ASD evolves. Will it really focus on building partnerships and clear communication? Or, will it revert back to the posturing that caused problems as it grew in Memphis?

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


 

WTF, TNReady?

In what is sure to be surprising news to parents, students, and school district leaders, TNReady quick score results are delayed yet again. Hard to predict this type of disaster since it only happens every year for the past four years now.

This delay is due to a problem the vendor is having with new test scanning equipment.

Here’s a statement from Hamilton County Schools explaining the news they received from the Tennessee Department of Education:

Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen informed school directors state-wide today that TNReady assessment vendor Questar has experienced challenges with the scanning software and capacity to scan testing materials; therefore, the company will not be able to meet the raw score deadlines set.

Dr. McQueen has asked Questar for updates on district-specific timing, and says the company currently estimates the scores will be delivered for the state’s upload process no later than the week of June 12.

Questar released a statement, which I have attached to this email.

The message from Dr. McQueen says she plans to meet with several groups this summer, including the TOSS Board, to come up with solutions that may prevent Tennessee testing vendors from missing the deadline set for report cards for a third year in a row. Her office promises to keep districts posted as the state receives more information.

To their credit, Questar is taking responsibility. That’s a change in tone from previous testing vendor Measurement, Inc.

Here’s what Questar had to say:

A Statement from Questar Regarding Raw Score Delivery

Questar committed to spring TNReady raw score delivery on a timeline and terms we set and which were communicated extensively by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), however, our company has experienced scan set-up difficulties that will affect that timeline. Questar recently completed an upgrade to our scanning programs for paper tests, and we underestimated the time needed to fully integrate these upgrades. Therefore, any delays to the timeline are not the fault of the Tennessee Department of Education or the districts across the state. We take complete responsibility for this project, and we are actively working to meet our commitments to the state, districts, and educators. The purpose of this communication is to provide an update on the progress we are making to publish raw scores for grades 3-8 and End-of-Course assessments.

End-of-Course Status Update: Nearly all paper and online EOC raw scores are uploaded to EdTools. We appreciate the communication from the TDOE to reprioritize EOC delivery to ensure districts had these results as soon as possible.

3-8 Status Update: Questar is currently working through delays in scan processing for the 3-8 raw scores, which impact the timeline we previously provided to the TDOE for raw score delivery. We have experienced several software delays with our scan programming that we are actively resolving, and we are working to increase capacity within our scanning operations. We are committed to working with TDOE to mitigate these challenges in order to scan and score TNReady 3-8 assessments as quickly as possible. We will provide additional details and timelines, including district-specific estimations, as we make progress over the week.

The raw score delays will not impact the timeline for delivery of final score reports. Our scoring operations are unaffected by the scanning software issues, and we anticipate providing EOC final score reports this summer and 3-8 score reports this fall after the cut score process is complete, as previously announced.

We understand the importance of having the raw scores to communicate information to educators, students, and families, and we apologize for the inconvenience our delays have caused TDOE and our district partners in getting this information on the timeline we committed to months ago.

Questar sincerely appreciates our partnership with TDOE and the Tennessee educators and students we serve.

Tennessee has unique timing requirements for raw score delivery as compared to other states so we will continue to work with the department and districts to ensure that the future score return process is successful.

-Brad Baumgartner, Chief Partner Officer

At least we’re now paying millions of taxpayer dollars to a vendor who will take some heat, right?
This part of the Hamilton County statement is interesting:
The message from Dr. McQueen says she plans to meet with several groups this summer, including the TOSS Board, to come up with solutions that may prevent Tennessee testing vendors from missing the deadline set for report cards for a third year in a row.
Here’s a solution: Don’t count TNReady scores in student final grades. In fact, since McQueen readily admits that raw score data is of little actual value and since different methods of factoring quick scores lead to vastly different scores assigned to students, why even bother?
It’s clearly been a problem to get reliable quick score data back to districts. The data is of dubious value. Legislation should advance that eliminates the use of TNReady data in student grades.
As I’ve said before, TNReady may well be a solid test properly aligned to standards. Such a test can yield useful information. A more student-centered approach to testing would focus on project-based assessment and use tools like TNReady to provide diagnostic information for students, teachers, and schools.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

It Doesn’t Matter Except When It Does

This year’s TNReady quick score setback means some districts will use the results in student report cards and some won’t. Of course, that’s nobody’s fault. 

One interesting note out of all of this came as Commissioner McQueen noted that quick scores aren’t what really matters anyway. Chalkbeat reports:

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts.

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

First, tying the quick scores to student grades is problematic. Assuming TNReady is a good, reliable test, we’d want the best results to be used in any grade calculation. Using pencil and paper this year makes that impossible. Even when we switch to a test fully administered online, it may not be possible to get the full scores back in time to use those in student grades.

Shifting to a model that uses TNReady to inform and diagnose rather than evaluate students and teachers could help address this issue. Shifting further to a project-based assessment model could actually help students while also serving as a more accurate indicator of whether they have met the standards.

Next, the story notes that teachers will be evaluated based on the scores. This will be done via TVAAS — the state’s value-added modeling system. Even as more states move away from value-added models in teacher evaluation, Tennessee continues to insist on using this flawed model.

Again, let’s assume TNReady is an amazing test that truly measures student mastery of standards. It’s still NOT designed for the purpose of evaluating teacher performance. Further, this is the first year the test has been administered. That means it’s simply not possible to generate valid data on teacher performance from this year’s results. You can’t just take this year’s test (TNReady) and compare it to the TCAP from two years ago. They are different tests designed to measure different standards in a different way. You know, the old apples and oranges thing.

One teacher had this to say about the situation:

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

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


 

The Fortunate 46

I reported earlier this week that the State Board of Education increased both the minimum base salary and the salary matrix at each step by four percent. I noted then that this would require salary increases for teachers in 46 districts across the state.

Here’s the list of the districts where the salary schedule increase will mean a mandatory raise for teachers:

Cannon                         Hollow Rock

West Carroll                 Carter

Claiborne                      Clay

Cocke                            Crockett

Alamo                           Cumberland

Decatur                        Dekalb

Dickson                        Fayette

Fentress                       Humboldt

Milan                            Bradford

Grainger                       Grundy

Hancock                       Hardin

Hawkins                       Haywood

Hickman                      Humphreys

Jackson                        Johnson County

Lake                              McNairy

Monroe                        Morgan

Overton                       Perry

Pickett                         Rhea

Scott                            Oneida

Sequatchie                 Smith

Sullivan                      Unicoi

Union                         Van Buren

Wayne                        Weakley

Here’s a link to the new minimum salary schedule.

The new minimum base pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $33,745 and the new minimum for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and more than 10 years experience is $40,595.

Yes, these numbers are pretty low. So, it’s unfortunate that 46 districts are being forced to raise pay based on the schedule adjustment. But, these are largely rural districts that are heavily dependent on state funding to run their systems.

The action of the SBE this week is a welcome change from the past few years when they increased the salary schedule by only a fraction of the new money allocated for teacher compensation through the BEP. If this trend continues, Tennessee may well become the fastest-improving state in teacher compensation.

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


 

 

It Wasn’t Me

TNReady results may or may not be included in your student’s report card, though we do know that more than 75% of districts won’t get scores back before the end of May. Don’t worry, though, it’s nobody’s fault.

Certainly, it’s not the responsibility of the Department of Education or Commissioner Candice McQueen to ensure that results are back in a timely fashion.

Today, Commissioner McQueen sent out an update to educators about assessments. There was some interesting information about TNReady going forward and about the timeline for scores for this year’s tests.

Not included? Any sort of apology about the TNReady quick score issue.

Instead, here’s what McQueen had to say:

Finally, I want to share an update on the delivery of raw scores for the 2016-17 assessment. We have received raw score data for nearly all EOC subjects, and grades 3–8 data continues to come in daily. We are in communication with your district leaders regarding the delivery of raw score data. State law and state board rule provides district choice on whether to include TNReady in grades if scores are not received within five days of the end of the school year. If you have questions about your particular district’s timeline or any decisions about including TNReady data in grades, I encourage you to reach out to your local leaders.

Got a problem or question about TNReady data and your student’s scores? Don’t ask Candice McQueen or the Department of Education. Ask your local leaders. Because, after all, we’ve been giving them all the relevant information in the most timely fashion.

I would suggest that leaders at TDOE just apologize and say it won’t happen again. But, as I mentioned, we’ve had testing challenges for four consecutive years now.

Here’s one word of advice to district leaders and teachers: Next year, when the Department of Education says everything is fine, it just might not be. Here’s something you can count on, though: It won’t be the responsibility of anyone at TDOE.

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


 

Tight Deadline

Trouble with the timeline for returning TNReady quick scores to school districts has lead to some unpleasant exchanges between districts and the Tennessee Department of Education. The latest reporting indicates that more than 75% of districts won’t have scores back in a fashion that allows them to be factored into report cards before the school year ends (which for most districts, is this week).

One question that has been asked is when did districts know there might be a problem?

A pair of emails from Commissioner Candice McQueen to directors of schools indicates it was pretty late in the game.

Here’s one sent on the evening of May 3rd. Here’s the portion of that email dedicated to TNReady and the timeline to return tests so they can be scored and returned to districts:

In order to receive TNReady raw score data back by late May, we need your support in shipping completed testing materials to our vendor in a timely fashion. We know that 75 percent of districts have shipped back some materials, and we need your help in ensuring all completed materials—particularly ELA subpart 1, which will be hand-scored—are returned quickly.

Testing coordinators should send completed subparts to Questar as soon as possible. System and building testing coordinators should follow the guidance they have received from our team as well as Questar. Our goal is to share your raw scores the week of May 22, which would be in time for TNReady results to be included in students’ grades at the 10 percent weighting for this year.

So, it’s May 3rd in the evening. You get this email that night or read it in the office the next day. The testing window ends May 5th. It looks like most districts have returned some materials and that raw scores will be back for most districts the week of May 22nd, plenty of time to use the data for student report cards.

Then, tucked inside the May 10th update (not even the top item) is this important information about deadlines for receipt of TNReady materials:

In order to receive TNReady raw score data back by late May, we need your support in shipping all completed testing materials to our vendor in a timely fashion. Testing coordinators should send completed subparts to Questar as soon as possible. System and building testing coordinators should follow the guidance they have received from our team as well as Questar. We have been working with our vendor to provide raw scores as early as the week of May 22, which would be in time for TNReady results to be included in students’ grades at the reduced 10 percent weighting for this year.

We have worked with Questar to determine the following timeline for when you can expect to have raw scores based on when they receive materials:

Subpart 1 (ELA 3–8, ENG I-III and USH) received by Questar All other test materials received by Questar Anticipated raw score file delivery date
On or before April 28 Wednesday, May 10 Monday, May 22*
April 29–May 5 Friday, May 12 Tuesday, May 30*
May 6–May 19 Friday, May 19 Monday, June 5*

*The raw score file dates are projected based on Questar’s anticipated timeline for scoring and processing.

That’s a pretty tight turnaround. The email I have on this has a time stamp of 8:45 PM — so, most people got this pretty late in the evening or read it on the 11th at the office.

But, reading it on the 11th was pretty useless since the deadline was the 10th. Oh, and getting the email on May 10th in the evening (or even during the day) was also pretty worthless.

Of course, if you acted quickly, you could get everything to Questar by May 12th and get scores back the week of May 30th. Sure, that’s after school’s out, but it would likely only mean a brief delay in report cards. But that would also mean you spent all of May 11th coordinating the logistics of getting scores to Questar the NEXT DAY.

Telling someone about a deadline that has already passed is not helpful.

Also odd is this wording about the three timelines released in response to Clarksville-Montgomery County’s results:

“We provide three different timelines for a reason, and all are equally fine and acceptable for districts to be on. We are neutral on which deadlines districts meet, and it is reasonable that larger districts would need additional time to ship materials back and may use the entire window to do so. We have always fully expected that we will have districts on all three tracks based on their local decisions.” Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns confirmed that with this comment: “We emphasized that there was no “miss” of deadlines. We just provided three timelines.”

On May 3rd, the word from the Department of Education was that most districts were on track and that most districts would have scores back by the week of May 22nd. Then, on May 10th, it turns out May 10th is the deadline for getting scores back the week of May 22nd. Want scores the week of May 30th? Better get them together by May 12th — essentially a one day notice.

So, now we end up with more than 75% of districts NOT getting raw scores back by the end of May.

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


 

 

 

 

Finally 4=4

Over the past three years, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved significant increases in funds for teacher compensation. Unfortunately, those dollars haven’t always made it into teacher paychecks. There are a number of reasons for this. One of those is the State Board of Education’s decision in the past two years to approve smaller adjustments to the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers.

Today, the State Board of Education met and voted on the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers for 2017-18. This year, the Board approved a 4% increase in the minimum salary and also adjusted each step on the scale by 4%. This matches the appropriation of the General Assembly, which passed a budget that included a 4% increase in BEP funds for teacher compensation.

According to the state’s analysis, this change will require 46 of the state’s 141 districts to raise teacher pay. These are mostly rural districts on the low end of the state’s teacher pay range. This will mean a number of teachers across the state should see meaningful increases in their paychecks in the coming year.

The new minimum salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $33,745. The top of the scale for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 11 years of experience (the scale includes only 4 steps for teachers with bachelor’s degrees, just three if you have an advanced degree) is $40,595. For advanced degrees, salaries must start at $37,300 and step three (11 years experience or more) requires a minimum of $45,075.

That $40,595 figure after 11 years of teaching seems disturbingly low. In fact, I’ve argued before that Tennessee should aim for a starting pay for teachers of at least $40,000.

That said, this year’s State Board of Education represents real progress that will result in significant pay increases for teachers in nearly a third of the state’s districts. Perhaps the upward pressure will also encourage other districts to push their pay up. We’ve already seen Metro Nashville move toward a 3% raise, as one example.

Here’s how the Tennessee Education Association viewed today’s salary move:

For the first time in four years, the Tennessee State Board of Education voted Wednesday to apply the full raise budgeted by the General Assembly for teachers to the State Minimum Salary Schedule. TEA has pushed the legislature and the state board for years to reinstate the practice of applying the full amount to the salary schedule as it is the best way to ensure all Tennessee teachers receive the raise promised to them by the governor and their legislators.

“When the board moved away from applying the entire raise percentage to the salary schedule, disparities in teacher pay and stagnant wages increased statewide,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “While Governor Haslam and the state legislature have done their part to increase teacher salaries, only a fraction of the budgeted raises were actually trickling down into teacher paychecks. The state board action this week should begin to remedy that problem.”

The recommendation by the Department of Education and the vote by the state board to increase the salary schedule and each step by 4 percent are in direct response to TEA’s advocacy efforts. Hundreds of TEA members have contacted legislators to let them know their teachers back home were not receiving the raises passed in the General Assembly. Members and TEA staff worked closely with the administration and legislators to find a way to correct the issue.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” Gray said. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college. The pressure applied by state elected officials was critical to reversing the State Board’s pattern of diminishing the raise passed by the General Assembly, a move which should finally make our teachers whole and help them support their families.”

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


 

 

Not Exactly Helpful

In a story yesterday about TNReady scores not being ready in time to be counted in student final grades, I noted a statement published in the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle and attributed to Tennessee Department of Education spokesperson Sara Gast. Here’s that statement again:

But Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said school districts would receive their scores based on how quickly they returned their materials.

This was the first week school districts could receive data back, and districts across the state will get their scores on a rolling basis over the next couple of week through the week of June 5, she said.

She said some districts will not get their scores in time to be counted in final grades “because they did not meet the deadlines.”

Since then, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools has posted an update on their Facebook page:

The state department of Education has clarified that CMCSS did NOT miss any deadlines. According to Sara Gast from the Tennessee Department of Education, “We provide three different timelines for a reason, and all are equally fine and acceptable for districts to be on. We are neutral on which deadlines districts meet, and it is reasonable that larger districts would need additional time to ship materials back and may use the entire window to do so. We have always fully expected that we will have districts on all three tracks based on their local decisions.” Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns confirmed that with this comment: “We emphasized that there was no “miss” of deadlines. We just provided three timelines.”

What’s not clear from this statement is whether it was anticipated that scores would not be ready by the end of school depending on the track chosen by districts.

It’s also interesting how the DOE’s explanation has shifted from blaming districts for missing deadlines to now saying that having more than 75% of districts not getting scores back before the end of the year was the plan all along.

I offered a solution yesterday. It’s simple, really.

Stop using this single test as the primary indicator of student performance, teacher effectiveness, and school accountability.

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


 

 

The Buck Stops Nowhere

By now it is clear that TNReady simply didn’t go as planned this year. Sure, the tests were administered and students completed them — largely on pencil and paper. But, the raw data from the tests used to generate the “quick scores” for student grades isn’t getting back to districts on time. At least not in time to include it in report cards.

The Department of Education says that’s the fault of districts. Here’s how a TN DOE spokesperson explained it to the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle:

But Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said school districts would receive their scores based on how quickly they returned their materials.

This was the first week school districts could receive data back, and districts across the state will get their scores on a rolling basis over the next couple of week through the week of June 5, she said.

She said some districts will not get their scores in time to be counted in final grades “because they did not meet the deadlines.”

The district says that’s simply not the case and that they met the established timeline:

Shelton said tests from all Clarksville-Montgomery County schools were definitely turned in according to the state’s timeline to have them back before schools let out Wednesday, and the school district was not at fault.

All of this may sound a bit familiar to those who watched the blame game play out last year during the total meltdown of TNReady.

Then, neither testing vendor Measurement, Inc. nor the Department of Education took responsibility for a test that clearly failed.

Here’s what’s interesting this year. The state admits that more than 75% of districts will not get scores back on time. This, they claim, is because of missed deadlines. Districts dispute that claim.

Educators will tell you that if more than 75% of students miss a test question or fail a test, there’s a problem – and the problem is with the question or the test, not the students. More than 75% of districts supposedly missed established deadlines. It seems clear the Department of Education has a problem. It’s also clear that adults are failing kids.

Students are told the tests matter. They are told the tests factor into grades. Schools are held accountable based on results. Despite statistical validity issues, the test is used to evaluate teachers — so, those teachers reinforce the importance of the test to their students.

Then, after the answer sheets have been bubbled in and the test booklets sent to the vendor for grading, students are told the tests won’t count. Or, they may count, but report cards will be late. But it’s okay. The adults got it wrong. Just keep showing up and taking the test seriously. No big deal.

If you want the students to take testing seriously, you should take your job seriously. This is the fourth year in a row that there have been challenges with testing and/or returning results. When district leaders have stood up and spoken out, Commissioner McQueen has threatened to withhold funding.

Here’s a crazy idea: Stop using this single test as the primary indicator of student performance, teacher effectiveness, and school accountability.

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