Inside Man

As more and more parents and teachers question the value of the state’s testing regimen, it’s important to examine how we got here. The short answer: Lots of money spent on lobbying by major testing companies like Pearson. The Tennessee-specific short answer: Chuck Cagle.

Over at Talking Points Memo, Owen Davis takes a deep dive into how Pearson and other testing giants made a killing on standardized testing. He points out that today’s students spend a lot of time taking standardized tests mandated by state governments (and even more time prepping for those tests):

The sense that students are over-tested is no illusion. A 2013 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found the stakes attached to testing in the U.S. to be the highest in the developed world. One study of the 66 largest urban school districts found the average student took 112 standardized tests from kindergarten to graduation, spending an average 22 hours a year just taking the exams, let alone preparing for them.

This despite the fact that Tennessee teachers report the tests are of little value, in part because of all the inconsistencies with test administration:

The Cookeville Herald-Citizen reports on attitudes toward standardized testing (TNReady) among teachers in Putnam County and notes the results are similar statewide:

Most teachers in Putnam County say information received from statewide standardized exams is not worth the investment of time and effort.

The results come from the state’s 2019 Tennessee Educator Survey released Thursday.

The state Department of Education said more than 45,000 Tennessee educators completed this year’s survey, representing 62 percent of the state’s teachers — an all-time high response rate. In Putnam County, 80 percent of the teachers took the survey, as did 88 percent of administrators.

According to the results, 62 percent of Putnam teachers either disagreed or strongly disagreed that standardized testing was worth the effort. Statewide, that percentage was 63 percent.

Now to our friend and testing money-maker Chuck Cagle. Here’s what Davis notes about Cagle:

Pearson also lobbied shrewdly at the state level. In Tennessee, for instance, Pearson’s top lobbyist was Chuck Cagle, attorney and husband of a longtime Pearson account executive. Cagle’s other clients included a reform organization called Tennessee SCORE, as well as the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and the Association of Independent and Municipal Schools—groups that exert substantial influence on district contracts. According to meeting minutes, Cagle gave Pearson-sponsored presentations and introduced Pearson executives to the school groups.

So, while TCAP was a key test in Tennessee, their top lobbyist was Chuck Cagle, who was also lobbying for groups representing school superintendents and school systems. The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance notes that Cagle was listed as a registered lobbyist for Pearson in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Then, as Tennessee transitioned to TNReady, Cagle pops up as the registered lobbyist for new testing vendor Measurement, Inc in 2015, 2016, and 2017. You might remember Measurement, Inc. as the company that hired test graders from Craigslist and also seriously botched the initial online rollout of TNReady.

So, in Tennessee, Chuck Cagle makes thousands of dollars each year representing school superintendents and school systems and also makes thousands of dollars each year helping testing companies secure lucrative contracts. According to Davis’s reporting, at least while working on behalf of Pearson, Cagle was extolling the virtues of that company to his school system clients.

According to his law firm bio:

Charles W. (Chuck) Cagle is a shareholder and chair of the Education Law and Government Relations Practice Group for the firm’s Nashville office. He oversees the firm’s representation of over 70 public boards of education, two private schools, two private universities, and a private medical school in a variety of legal matters…

His list of lobbying clients has included school superintendents, school employee professional organizations, school boards, private schools, and private universities

It’s no wonder a testing company seeking lucrative contracts would seek out a lobbyist like Cagle. Those boards, however, should be asking Cagle about his interest in promoting testing and products offered by Pearson and other companies he is representing or has represented.

Having been around the General Assembly for nearly 20 years now, I’ll say that Cagle is often called on by lawmakers (especially in committee meetings) to offer his expertise on education issues. It seems his range of interests includes ensuring the state continue requiring hours of testing with vendors he represents. No mention of whether or not Cagle believes these tests have any benefit for the students taking them. Certainly no mention of any advocacy for the type of systemic changes that would actually help kids.

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

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TNReady for E-Rate Dispute?

45 school districts across Tennessee could lose up to $50 million depending on the outcome of a dispute over the federal E-rate program which provides funding for internet services to schools.

Dessislava Yankova reports on the impact to Sumner County and gives an overview of the issue.

The dispute is a result of an FCC ruling regarding the bid to provide internet service to the “Sweetwater Consortium,” a group of 45 school districts in Tennessee that joined together for the purpose of gaining access to high-speed internet services at a more affordable price.

Yankova summarizes the issue:

“USAC evaluated Sweetwater’s competitive bidding process and the services requested and determined that the applicant did not select the most cost-effective offering,” the letter stated.

While evaluating AT&T’s appeal, USAC ceased E-Rate funding to ENA, which continued providing phone and Internet to the schools without receiving full payment.

On June 9, ENA Senior Director of Sales Mark Smith wrote a letter to Sumner County schools seeking a $1.4 million payment for services over the last three years and informed Sumner schools that next year’s bill would be for an additional $550,000.

“While waiting on approval of your E-Rate funding over the last three years, ENA has delivered and billed the district for 100% of the services contracted for, while collecting only the discounted portion of the services provided,” Smith stated. “The school district is ultimately responsible for full payment for services received.”

While Sumner County has funds available to shift to cover the costs, other districts may not be able to do so without making cuts elsewhere. The alternative could be a loss of access to quality high speed internet service, a service that is essential to the new TNReady tests being administered in 2016.

Chuck Cagle, an attorney representing the consortium, notes the impact to local school systems:

On May 21, 30 months after payments stopped, USAC notified all 45 systems that federal funding was denied and no back or future payments would be made. Based on the provisions of the consortium’s contract, individual systems are now responsible for full payments to the ENA, Cagle said.

“That is an egregious and seriously harmful outcome of decisions made by an over-reaching federal agency,” Cagle said. “It is crucially important to note here that this move by the FCC is unprecedented. In our collective experience, we have never known this agency to reach down into the state’s legal and proper procurement process and override an award.

“These 45 school districts are reeling from this decision by the FCC and USAC,” Cagle said. “Without accessibility to adequate broadband, advanced statewide student testing and digital learning hangs in the balance — as does the fiscal health of the districts.”

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