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.

 

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


 

McQueen: Do It My Way

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said yesterday that despite a desire to move a struggling Memphis middle school into a proven local turnaround model managed by the district, she is insisting the school be moved into the failing Achievement School District (ASD).

Chalkbeat reports:

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that American Way Middle School must be converted to a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. If Shelby County Schools doesn’t decide by March 15 to do that on its own, she said, the state will take over the school and move it to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

While the Shelby County Schools iZone has been lauded for achieving solid results, the state’s ASD hasn’t gotten the job done. In fact, of the original schools taken over by the ASD five years ago, all but one remain in the bottom 5% of all schools in the state. That is, there’s be no significant improvement in performance.

So, why is Candice McQueen hellbent on moving American Way into a failed reform model? The Shelby County School Board has taken corrective action and set the school on a path that has gotten proven results at other schools. Further, McQueen’s chosen intervention is one that’s simply not getting results.

Will lawmakers in Nashville take action to stop this move? So far, efforts to rein-in the ASD have been met with significant resistance. However, the lack of a successful TNReady administration has hampered the ASD’s growth. McQueen says that will no longer be a problem:

The commissioner said the state’s decision to delay school takeover until 2019 is due to delayed test scores from the state. That won’t be the case in the next round of sorting schools into various “improvement tracks” under the state’s new school accountability plan. The state’s next list of its lowest performing schools is scheduled to be released next fall, which will inform decisions for future improvement plans.

Let’s be clear: Candice McQueen has presided over a failed transition to a new test and an aggressive intervention model for struggling schools that has left kids behind. Now, she’s insisting that Shelby County do what she says. Why would anyone trust their district’s students to Candice McQueen’s judgment?

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


 

1 > 0

Tennessee is now four years into a program targeted at struggling students known as Response to Intervention and Instruction, or RTI2. For the first time next year, districts may actually receive some funding for this state-mandated program. That’s right, for the first four years of the mandated program, there was no state funding. This left districts struggling to make the program work.

Of the new funding, Chalkbeat reports:

This year for the first time, Gov. Bill Haslam is asking for state funding to help districts with RTI2. His proposed budget includes $13.3 million that would pay for at least one interventionist per district, along with additional resources, trainings, and tools to strengthen the program.

Back in 2015, Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reported on the challenges faced by districts attempting to meet the state mandate without any supporting dollars:

Districts have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on assessments, and don’t have the money to hire educators with the expertise required to work with the highest needs students. Some schools are using their general education teachers, already stretched thin, and others are using computer programs.

Now, districts can rest easy. Entire districts will be able to use state dollars to hire exactly one RTI2 specialist. This may be great for tiny districts like Lexington City or Trousdale County, but not incredibly helpful in districts with more than two or three schools.

In fact, even as the program has moved into high schools, it’s been met with challenges:

 

RTI2 is now in place in all public K-12 schools statewide but launched just last school year in high schools — a rollout that has been especially challenging. The report notes that only half of those teachers say that the new program is helping students learn, compared to three-fourths of elementary school teachers. It also notes that — because the model depends heavily on collaboration among classroom teachers, interventionists, and special educators — struggles around scheduling and collaboration are heightened in high school.

“It still feels like we are trying to adapt an elementary-focused model to high school needs, and it is not working well,” according to one school psychologist.

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.

Oh, and our state has the money. We’re on track to collect nearly $700 million in revenue above what we brought in last year. Plus, providing targeted funding for RTI2 would free up local dollars to boost teacher pay across the board or meet other district needs.

Instead, we’re left with a 1 > 0 scenario and told to be appreciative. Our Governor and Education Commissioner talk of the importance of helping our most vulnerable students, but their budget approach tells a different story.

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


 

Are TN Colleges Turning Out Bad Teachers?

You might think Tennessee’s public schools of education are doing a poor job of turning out effective educators if you read this story in yesterday’s Tennessean.

The article notes:

Many of Tennessee’s teacher preparation programs aren’t at the quality the state expects. A number of those underperforming are at state colleges — with none of those schools performing at the highest level.

It’s a “sobering” data point education officials are highlighting as they work toward addressing fixes in Tennessee’s teaching programs.

The article references the redesigned teacher preparation report card produced annually by the Tennessee State Board of Education.

I’ve written before about the problems with this approach.

The revamped report includes candidate profile (who is enrolling in teacher prep programs), retention (whether grads stay in teaching), and “teacher effectiveness” (which is measured primarily by the flawed TVAAS system).

TVAAS scores of graduates account for 25 of the 75 points available to rate teacher prep programs. That means the rating formula is heavily skewed toward an unreliable statistical estimate of performance.

At best, TVAAS is a rough estimate of teacher performance. A fairly solid indicator that a teacher earning a “5” is NOT a “1,” but relatively meaningless otherwise.

Now, of course, Tennessee has transitioned to new tests. TNReady has been fraught with problems, but even if it hadn’t been, the results would render TVAAS data highly suspect. So, 33% — the largest single portion — of the score attributed to teacher prep programs comes from a number that is essentially meaningless. Let me be clear: Schools receiving grades of 4 (the highest) or 1 (the lowest) on this metric are getting numbers that have no basis in statistical reality.

The next area of importance to a program’s score is the profile of the candidates enrolled in their program. Here, the state is looking for high academic achievers and overall diversity.

As noted in the article:

McQueen also has plans for a statewide tour to schools with the purpose of getting high-achieving, young students into the education profession, especially since preparation programs are having trouble getting qualified candidates in the doors.

This is predicated on the assumption that students with higher ACT scores will ultimately become better teachers. Whether or not that’s true, it ignores the underlying reality: Teaching just may not be a very attractive field. That’s not the fault of schools of education and it certainly isn’t their responsibility to fix it.

In fact, Tennessee has been looking at a coming teacher shortage for years now. Districts like MNPS are already seeing the impact.

Why might teaching be unattractive? Well, for one, the pay is not exactly great. In fact, Tennessee teachers earn about 30% less than their similarly prepared peers. Boosting pay may be one way to help make the field more attractive. Alternatively (and much cheaper), the state could send the outgoing Commissioner of Education on a tour of schools to attempt to persuade high achieving students to enter a profession where they can expect to earn significantly less than other professionals and be subjected to a testing and evaluation system that according to some is “driving teachers crazy.”

Another factor? Our state under-funds the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) by around $500 million. So, new teachers face low pay, a problematic evaluation system, and under-resourced schools. Is it any wonder teacher prep programs aren’t getting enough qualified applicants?

Nevertheless, teacher prep programs are being held “accountable” for fixing problems over which they have little control. Makes perfect sense.

*NOTE: An earlier version of this story indicated TVAAS accounted for 40 points on the scale. That has been corrected to accurately reflect the 25 points TVAAS scores comprise.

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


 

Driving Teachers Crazy

State Representative Jeremy Faison of Cosby says the state’s teacher evaluation system, and especially the portion that relies on student scores on TNReady is causing headaches for Tennessee’s teachers.

Faison made the remarks at a hearing of the House Government Operations Committee, which he chairs. The hearing featured teachers, administrators, and representatives from the Department of Education and Tennessee’s testing vendor, Questar.

Zach Vance of the Johnson City Press reports:

“What we’re doing is driving the teachers crazy. They’re scared to death to teach anything other than get prepared for this test. They’re not even enjoying life right now. They’re not even enjoying teaching because we’ve put so much emphasis on this evaluation,” Faison said.

Faison also said that if the Department of Education were getting ratings on a scale of 1 to 5, as teachers do under the state’s evaluation system (the TEAM model), there are a number of areas where the Department would receive a 1. Chief among them is communication:

“We’ve put an immense amount of pressure on my educators, and when I share with you what I think you’d get a one on, I’m speaking for the people of East Tennessee, the 11th House District, from what I’m hearing from 99.9 percent of my educators, my principal and my school superintendents.”

Rather frankly, Faison said both the state Department of Education and Questar should receive a one for its communication with local school districts regarding the standardized tests.

Faison’s concerns about the lack of communication from the TNDOE echo concerns expressed by Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright recently related to a different issue. While addressing the state’s new A-F report card to rate schools, Wright said:

We have to find a way to take care of our kids and particularly when you have to look at kids in kindergarten, kids in the 504 plan and kids in IEP. When you ask the Department of Education right now, we’re not getting any answers.

As for including student test scores in teacher evaluations, currently a system known as Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) is used to estimate the impact a teacher has on a student’s growth over the course of the year. At best, TVAAS is a very rough estimate of a fraction of a teacher’s impact. The American Statistical Association says value-added scores can estimate between 1-14% of a teacher’s impact on student performance.

Now, however, Tennessee is in the midst of a testing transition. While McQueen notes that value-added scores count less in evaluation (15% this past year, 20% for the current year), why county any percentage of a flawed score? When changing tests, the value of TVAAS is particularly limited:

Here’s what Lockwood and McCaffrey (2007) had to say in the Journal of Educational Measurement:

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

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

And they concluded:

Our results provide a clear example that caution is needed when interpreting estimated teacher effects because there is the potential for teacher performance to depend on the skills that are measured by the achievement tests.

If you measure different skills, you get different results. That decreases (or eliminates) the reliability of those results. TNReady is measuring different skills in a different format than TCAP. It’s BOTH a different type of test AND a test on different standards. Any value-added comparison between the two tests is statistically suspect, at best.

After the meeting, Faison confirmed that legislation will be forthcoming that detaches TNReady data from teacher evaluation and student grades.

Faison’s move represents policy based on acknowledging that TNReady is in the early stages, and more years of data are needed in order to ensure a better performance estimate. Or, as one principal who testified before the committee said, there’s nothing wrong with taking the time to get this right.

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


 

Ready to Stop?

Murfreesboro State Senator Bill Ketron is proposing legislation that would place a two year moratorium on TNReady testing, he told the Daily News Journal.

Ketron said he will sponsor legislation for a two-year moratorium on the standardized testing mandate from the Tennessee Department of Education until all data is accurate and can be released to school districts in a timely way instead of being too late to be of use in evaluating performance.

Ketron’s legislation goes further than proposals made by legislators earlier this year that would continue the testing, but not use the results for student scores or teacher evaluation.

The move comes as Tennessee has experienced yet another round of testing trouble.

Tomorrow is December 1st and students and parents still do not have results from a test administered in April.

Members of Murfreesboro’s School Board expressed frustration:

“I do believe we are overtesting,” Terry said.

The lawmakers listened to school officials complain about the standardized testing.

“The system has not worked like it’s supposed to,” County Board of Education Chairman Jeff Jordan said.

The money spent on TNReady testing is “in large part being wasted,” Jordan said.

“It’s just thrown away,” Jordan said.

Murfreesboro City School Board member Nancy Rainier said the “testing debacle” has been hard on children.

“They are the ones being tested to death,” Rainier said.

Fellow county school board member Lisa Moore agreed.

“It’s a never-ending source of frustration,” Moore said.

Tennessee taxpayers spend millions of dollars on testing that so far, hasn’t proven very useful.

Ketron’s legislation will need to gain sufficient support to receive positive votes in House and Senate Education committees before getting a floor vote.

It seems certain Commissioner McQueen and Governor Haslam will oppose the measure, as both have expressed (misplaced) confidence in the current system.

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


 

LEAKED: Testing Task Force Reveals Secret Plan

The Tennessean reports that Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen is reconvening the state’s testing task force in the wake of yet another round of TNReady testing troubles.

From the story:

“This task force has been critical in our work to improve the testing experience for students while providing better information to teachers and parents,” McQueen said in a news statement. “As in the past, I am confident that this group will continue to provide meaningful, actionable recommendations for improving both district and state assessment programs.”

TNEdReport has obtained a copy of the proposed recommendations from the task force:

  1. Get Rid of TNReady
  2. Fire Candice McQueen

These recommendations are to be announced at what will surely be hailed as the shortest yet most effective meeting yet of the task force.

Stay tuned to hear more about this important meeting.

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


 

This is Fine

Amid the latest round of TNReady troubles that included both miscalculated student scores and errors in how those scores were used in some teacher evaluations, the House of Representatives held hearings last week to search for answers.

On the same day of the committee hearings, Governor Bill Haslam let everyone know that things were going well.

Chalkbeat reports:

Earlier in the day, Gov. Bill Haslam called the controversy overblown because this year’s errors were discovered as part of the state’s process for vetting scores.

“I think the one thing that’s gotten lost in all this discussion is the process worked,” Haslam told reporters. “It was during the embargo period before any of the results were sent out to students and their families that this was caught.”

Here’s the deal: If this were the only problem with TNReady so far, Governor Haslam would be right. This would be no big deal. But, you know, it’s not the only problem. At all.

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.

As for the aforementioned Commissioner of Education, some may remember the blame shifting and finger pointing engaged in by Commissioner McQueen and then-TNReady vendor Measurement, Inc. That same attitude was on display again this year when key deadlines were missed for the return of “quick scores” to school districts.

Which brings us to the perennial issue of delivering accurate score reports to districts. This year was the fourth year in a row there have been problems delivering these results to school districts. Each year, we hear excuses and promises about how it will be better next year. Then, it isn’t.

Oh, and what if you’re a parent like me and you’re so frustrated you just want to opt your child out of testing. Well, according to Commissioner McQueen and the Governor who supports her, that’s not an option. Sadly, many districts have fallen in line with this way of thinking.

Here’s the thing: McQueen’s reasoning is missing something. Yes, she lacks credibility generally. But, specifically, she’s ignoring some key evidence. As I noted previously:

All along, the state has argued a district’s federal funds could be in jeopardy due to refusal to administer the test or a district’s inability to test at least 95% of its students.

As such, the argument goes, districts should fight back against opt-outs and test refusals by adopting policies that penalize students for taking these actions.

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.

So, you have a system that is far from perfect and based on this system (TNReady), you penalize teachers (through their evaluations) and schools (through an A-F school grading system). Oh yeah, and you generate “growth” scores and announce “reward” schools based on what can best be described as a problematic (so far) measuring stick with no true comparability to the previous measuring stick.

Anyway, Bill Haslam is probably right. This is fine.

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


 

Would You Like Some Pie?

Chalkbeat’s Laura Faith Kebede reports on how the United Education Association, which represents teachers in Shelby County, describes the current TNReady situation:

“It’s as if you had a piece of pie, and I find a piece of glass in it,” she said. “But I cut somebody else a piece of that same pie and assure you ‘You don’t have glass in yours.’ Are you going to trust me and eat that piece of pie knowing that there’s a piece of glass in mine?”

That’s how UEA President Tikela Rucker described the current state of TNReady given what she cited as years of problems:

“This is the third year in a row that we’ve experienced issues regarding TNReady, which leads us to have zero confidence in TNReady, Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education,” said Shelby County UEA President Tikeila Rucker on behalf of the union’s 2,000 members.

Shelby County Director of Schools Dorsey Hopson also suggested the state needed to be more accountable:

“We stand in solidarity with our teachers. We know the (state) Department of Education is working very hard,” Hopson told reporters. “But given the high-stakes nature of the test, we just want to be accurate. And when they’re not accurate, it just casts a cloud of doubt over the whole process.”

Hopson stopped short of calling for test scores to be invalidated. “I wouldn’t necessarily jump to that conclusion,” he said, “but I do agree with our teaching colleagues that the results need to be accurate and timely.”

The UEA is calling for all scores from this year to be invalidated and for a moratorium on using TNReady scores in the state’s accountability system until 2021.

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


 

 

Wrong Answer

In the never ending saga that is testing in Tennessee, the latest chapter spins a familiar but frustrating tale. It seems the state’s testing vendor incorrectly scored thousands of TNReady tests, impacting student score reports and teacher evaluation scores based on those student scores.

Jennifer Pignolet and Jason Gonzales have more:

About 9,400 TNReady tests across the state were scored incorrectly, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

The scoring issue impacted about 70 schools in 33 districts. Just over 1,000 of the incorrectly scored tests were in Shelby County Schools, according to an email from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to his board on Friday.

Approximately 1,700 of the total incorrect tests scores, once corrected, changed what scoring category that test fell into, possibly affecting whether a student passed the test.

The error also impacted value-added scores for up to 230 teachers. A separate problem could impact TVAAS scores for as many as 900 teachers.

The scope of the error means scores in nearly 25% of the state’s school districts will need to be corrected. The Department of Education says the testing vendor, Questar, is re-scoring the tests.

UPDATE — Here’s a list of districts impacted:

  • Achievement School District
  • Anderson County
  • Benton County
  • Bradley County
  • Bristol City
  • Carter County
  • Cocke County
  • Collierville City
  • Crockett County
  • Davidson County
  • Elizabethton City
  • Giles County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hardin County
  • Henry County
  • Huntingdon Special School District
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Knox County
  • Lewis County
  • Lincoln County
  • Marshall County
  • Maryville City
  • Monroe County
  • Montgomery County
  • Obion County
  • Putnam County
  • Roane County
  • Rutherford County
  • Shelby County
  • Smith County
  • Sumner County
  • Union City
  • Weakley County

The State of Tennessee has spent millions of dollars on a new testing regime supposedly better able to assess student mastery of state standards. So far, all most students, teachers, and parents have seen is problems.

The first set of problems happened on day one of the initial online administration of the test in 2016. Then, a series of missed deadlines led to the state firing then-vendor Measurement, Inc. That’s the same company that hired test scorers via ads on Craigslist.

Of course, this is the same Department of Education that has repeatedly had issues with test score data.

If only there had been warning signs or calls to take the time to phase-in TNReady so that it best serves students and educators.

You know, something like:

TNReady is measuring different skills in a different format than TCAP. It’s BOTH a different type of test AND a test on different standards. Any value-added comparison between the two tests is statistically suspect, at best. In the first year, such a comparison is invalid and unreliable. As more years of data become available, it may be possible to make some correlation between past TCAP results and TNReady scores.

Or, if the state is determined to use growth scores (and wants to use them with accuracy), they will wait several years and build completely new growth models based on TNReady alone. At least three years of data would be needed in order to build such a model.

That’s from an article I wrote in March of 2015 about TNReady data and the challenges of adapting to a new test using our current accountability system.

That was BEFORE the 2016 TNReady mess. It was before the state had a problem getting data back this year.

How many warning signs will be ignored? How important is the test that it must be administered at all costs and the mistakes must be excused away because “accountability” demands it?

How can you hold students and teachers and schools accountable when no one is holding the Department of Education accountable? How long will legislators tolerate a testing regime that creates nightmares for our students and headaches for our teachers while yielding little in terms of educational value?

At least one school board has complained about the state’s handling of TNReady data this year. I suspect more will follow in the wake of this latest mistake.

So far, TNReady has sent one clear message: Accountability is a one way street in Tennessee and students, teachers, and districts are on the wrong end.

 

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