What Do the Facts Say?

The facts tells us that school vouchers don’t work — they are expensive and can actually have a negative impact on student achievement.

But, that didn’t matter last night as a subcommittee of lawmakers advanced a voucher bill proponents claim will only impact a small group of students.

Grace Tatter at Chalkbeat reports:

… Tennessee lawmakers insisted Tuesday that the state can succeed where others have failed, and easily advanced a proposal that would start a five-year pilot program in Memphis.

The voice vote came after members of a House education subcommittee heard voucher opponents cite recent research showing that vouchers in other states have led to worse academic outcomes for students. But again and again, lawmakers said that Tennessee could be different.

Perennial voucher advocate John DeBerry of Memphis said that voucher opponents shouldn’t worry — the program will be small, and schools won’t lose that much money.

Tatter notes that he:

… projected that few students would actually opt to participate, meaning public schools would not lose as much funding as its leaders fear. “A lot of folks are not going to put in the time, the effort,” DeBerry said, “but for the handful of parents that do, why not give them that right?”

Let’s examine that a little more closely. DeBerry is acknowledging that public schools will lose money under the plan he supports. He’s willing to take money from a school system that finally appears to be turning around in order to help what he describes as a small group of students. Oh, and the evidence says the vouchers won’t actually help those students and may well harm them.

Now, let’s compare DeBerry’s remarks to what former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said when he started a voucher program in his state:

Back in 2011, Daniels spoke to a conservative think tank a few months after he signed the program into law. At that speech, he said he didn’t expect this to become a big problem.

“It is not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana,” he said “I think it will be exercised by a meaningful but not an enormous number of our students.”

There are other similarities between Indiana’s voucher experience and the Tennessee proposal. Back in 2011, the program in Indiana was capped at 7500 students. The proposal advanced last night would initially provide vouchers for up to 5000 students.

That Indiana program was expanded rapidly, and now it serves more than 30,000 students.

If you think lawmakers won’t move to quickly expand vouchers in Tennessee once the door is opened, you are wrong. At the end of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers narrowly approved an IEA voucher bill. This bill was targeted at students with a specific list of special needs. Now, Senator Dolores Gresham is advancing legislation that would expand that program to include students who have never attended a public school. The program is in the first year of operation, there’s no data on student results, and yet voucher proponents are already seeking to expand.

Last night, facts didn’t matter. A majority on subcommittee ignored research and suggested Tennessee could be different. The track record in other states tells a different story.

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


 

 

 

That’ll Be $400 Million

The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability is out with a new report that suggests Tennessee is underfunding its schools by at least $400 million. That’s because the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) fails to adequately fund education personnel.

Grace Tatter has more:

The state is considerably underestimating the number of educators needed to run Tennessee schools according to its own requirements, says a state comptroller’s report released Wednesday.
And local governments are paying the difference. Statewide, districts employ about 12,700 more educators than the state funds, according to the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability, or OREA.

Back in March, I wrote about this, and estimated the state was underfunding teachers by about 15%:

If districts only hired the BEP number of teachers, they could reduce local costs, but they’d also likely have some pretty unhappy parents on their hands. So, yes, the Governor’s proposed changes do direct additional funds to districts. But the changes do not address the underlying problem with the BEP. Doing so would cost another $250 to $300 million. That would be the cost of adjusting the ratios by 10-15% for teachers. That’s not to mention nurses, counselors, and other positions. And it doesn’t include capital funding.

Turns out, I underestimated the problem. The real number is around 22%, as Tatter notes:

The median percentage of additional teachers funded with local money was 22 percent. That translated to 686 more teachers in Knox County and 499 more in Rutherford County in 2014-15.

So, what does this mean? It means the state is underfunding local districts by about $394 million. That’s because the updated BEP formula funds teachers at $44,430 per unit. The state pays 70% of this cost.

That doesn’t include the cost of insurance for the additional 12,700 teachers. Nor does it include a salary adjustment to begin making up for the teacher wage gap. That cost is about $500 million.

So, to add proper state funding for needed teachers and provide adequate salaries, we’d need $894 million.

Then, there are the additional priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee. These priorities include providing teachers and schools the resources they need to adequately educate Tennessee’s students.

If your local property taxes have gone up recently to cover the cost of schools, you can blame the state for shorting our state’s school districts by nearly $900 million.

Incidentally, our state has a $925 million surplus — we could invest every dime of that into schools, meet the current need, and not raise state taxes one cent. Oh, and doing so would both improve public education and keep your local property taxes low.

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


 

 

 

Just Kidding

The Tennessee General Assembly this year approved changes to the state’s school funding formula (the BEP) and at the same time, refused to appropriate sufficient funds to pay for the changes.

As a result of this refusal, MNPS is suing the state and demanding full funding of the formula.

The state’s response is pretty remarkable. State lawyers maintain that even though new funding ratios are now state law, the state doesn’t have to follow this law.

Grace Tatter reports:

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves about a third of the state’s ELL population, is seeking a court order demanding that the state provide the district with funds promised under its recently revised funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

State lawmakers voted this year to increase ELL funding based on a 1:20 student-teacher ratio instead of the previous 1:30 ration, but only provided Nashville with money for a 1:25 ratio. That’s about $4 million short of what was promised this school year, say Nashville school leaders.

Attorneys for the state say Tennessee isn’t obligated to follow through with its own spending plan — and that Nashville doesn’t have the grounds to seek the order in the first place.

The state doesn’t have to follow through with its own spending plan? Then why even have a spending plan? The state adopted a new funding formula and put new funding ratios into Tennessee Code. But now the state is saying they don’t actually have to follow the laws they passed.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating about this entire situation is that Tennessee has a $925 million budget surplus this year. That’s following a $1 billion surplus last year.

Yes, we have the money to fully fund the formula. Instead, lawyers are now arguing that policymakers are not obligated to follow a formula they proposed and adopted. That’s a pretty strange defense.

The legislature could have phased-in the ratios. Or adopted different, more “affordable” ratios. But they didn’t. Now, the state doesn’t want to be held accountable for meeting the ratios Governor Haslam suggested and the General Assembly adopted. What other laws does the state view as mere suggestions?

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


 

Emotional Rescue

Tennessee won’t be a part of a national collaboration around social and emotional learning in schools and, according to state Senator Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, we have Jim Tracy to thank (or blame?) for that.

Just last month, the Department of Education announced our state’s selection to participate in a multi-state collaboration around social and emotional learning.

Since then, the plan has faced some criticism, including from lawmakers.

Chalkbeat’s Grace Tatter reports that Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia questioned the need for such collaboration at a recent hearing:

The recent pushback over social-emotional standards also has included a wariness of collaborative work across state lines, an attitude that contributed to the state’s decision to scrap the Common Core academic standards for math and reading in favor of “homegrown standards” that Tennessee will roll out in 2017.

“I don’t understand why we have to constantly collaborate with other states,” Rep. Sheila Butt said during a summer study session last month. “We don’t have to do it that way.”

Oh, and there’s Jim Tracy. He penned an op-ed in the Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro taking credit for Tennessee rejecting the funding for the project.

Tracy:

After hearing from many constituents about potential funding for this controversial program, I contacted the Department of Education. This action helped in the decision making process by the DOE to decline funding for it.

Tatter explains the “controversial” initiative this way:

The social and emotional standards developed with CASEL would have set benchmarks for what students should know or be able to do in each grade when it comes to skills such as decision-making, self-awareness, social awareness, self-control, and establishing and maintaining healthy relationships.

And here’s how the program was described when it was announced:

The standards will be developed in collaboration with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL, which announced this week that Tennessee will join the initiative along with California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington. The national organization previously has partnered with urban districts including Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools but is branching out into state policy to spread strategies around social and emotional learning.

Tennessee’s new standards will be drafted beginning Sept. 1 by a team that includes researchers, parents and educators. The final product will be reviewed next July by the State Board of Education.

A multi-state collaboration with both national experts and Tennessee educators and parents on an issue shown to have a clear impact on student behavior and performance — that’s what we just scrapped.

For its part, the state says it will still focus on social and emotional learning, just without the input of CASEL or the collaboration from state partners.

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


 

 

 

The One About the Emails

Grace Tatter at Chalkbeat has an interesting look into emails between the Tennessee Department of Education, Measurement Inc., and school districts as the state prepared for the TNReady tests.

The central message is that there were clear warning signs that TNReady simply wasn’t.

But, there’s one key email that pretty much says it all:

Either way, the department’s top technology official put it simply when he emailed McQueen on the day of the failure. “It appears that greater procedural and operational rigor could have prevented the network outage,” Cliff Lloyd wrote to McQueen. (emphasis added)

The whole piece is worth a read — lots of good info about what was known and when.

But, read what Cliff Lloyd wrote again. The disaster that was TNReady in 2016 could have been prevented. Both the state’s vendor and state officials simply didn’t do what was required to make that happen.

More on TNReady:

TNReady: Time for a Trade?

An $18.5 Million Emergency?

Not Ready at All

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


 

An $18.5 Million Emergency

As a result of the failure of Measurement Inc. to deliver on its TNReady promises, the State of Tennessee has awarded a contract to Pearson to grade tests completed by students this year, including high school EOC tests and Part I tests that were completed. The contract pays $18.5 million and the estimated completion date for grading is December.

Grace Tatter has the details:

The state’s contract with Pearson goes through December for scoring and reporting of 2015-16 assessments, including high school exams, Part I grade 3-8 tests, and any completed Part II grade 3-8 exams.

Now, to be clear, the “emergency” is that some students completed tests that weren’t graded and won’t be graded by Measurement Inc. because they were fired.

What about the fact that some tests were completed online and others were completed on paper? Never fear, the state’s data team has a plan:

Measurement Inc. already has scored high school exams completed online last fall for students who are on block schedules. Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Townes said the state will use a formula to ensure that those scores are comparable to the scores of tests completed on paper, and to be graded by Pearson, this spring.

So, as a result of this new contract, there will be two different vendors grading the same test as well as some tests completed in an online format and some on pencil and paper.

Oh, and the results are due back in December. Well past time to have much value to inform instruction or help parents or students understand areas of deficiency.

Instead of spending $18.5 million on grading these tests which will have limited usefulness, the state could use that money to fully develop and pay for portfolio assessment at the district level for related arts and other non-tested teachers.

It could also use some of that money to support the unfunded mandate of RTI2.

Or, it could spend a portion of that money on developing an alternative assessment regimen — perhaps incorporating project-based assessment and reducing the reliance on standardized testing. Maybe even finding ways to reduce total testing time. Or, develop an assessment waiver as allowed under the new ESSA.

Out of crisis can come opportunity – and we have an opportunity and some unspent funds that could be used to develop better, more student-focused solutions going forward.

Instead, we’re handing money to Pearson and trying to get back to business as usual as soon as possible.

Rest assured:

…the department plans to select a new vendor in June to develop and administer next year’s state assessment.

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

Why TNReady Wasn’t

Grace Tatter over at Chalkbeat has an informative interview with the President of Measurement Inc., the company charged with delivering TNReady this year.

As I read the interview, a couple of items stood out. First, the company had never delivered an entire state’s online testing program. Tatter notes:

It was also an unprecedented task for Measurement Inc., which had never before developed and delivered a state’s entire online testing program.

Despite this, they somehow won the bid to deliver Tennessee’s program.

Second, the magnitude of the failure. Tatter:

About 48,000 students logged on that day, and about 18,000 submitted assessments. It’s unknown the number of students who weren’t having troubles with the test, but stopped after McQueen sent an email instructing districts to halt testing.

“It was a failure in some respects because we were supposed to design a system that would take 100,000 students in at one time… We had a problem with 48,000,” Scherich said.

Read that again. Measurement Inc. was tasked with developing an online platform that could handle 100,000 students taking a test at the same time. The system they developed couldn’t handle 48,000 students. They didn’t even develop a system that could handle HALF of what they were contracted to provide.

The company president goes on to detail the challenges of printing the tests in a short timeframe. However, back in February, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen expressed confidence in the printed tests:

“I want to stress to you that the paper version of TNReady is still TNReady,” McQueen wrote of the new test aligned to the state’s current Common Core academic standards.

She said the paper tests are being shipped to each district at no additional taxpayer cost.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Phase I tests did arrive, albeit quite late. And Phase II tests were not delivered in time to be administered this year.

Now, the state is seeking another vendor who can deliver the test in the 2016-17 academic year.


 

 

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

 

Ready to Refuse

As Tennessee schools prepare for Phase II of TNReady, the Department of Education has sent districts a memo outlining how they should handle students who refuse or attempt to “opt-out” of the test.

The general gist, according to reporting by Grace Tatter, is that you can’t opt-out or refuse. She reports:

District leaders received a memo last week instructing schools to “address student absences on testing days in the same manner as they would address a student’s failure to participate in any other mandatory activity at school (e.g. final exams) by applying the district’s or school’s attendance policies.”

The memo specifically notes:

 “State and federal law also requires student participation in state assessments. In fact, these statutes specifically reference the expectation that all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments.”

That’s not entirely true.

Federal law, even with the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires states to administer annual assessments in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.

But there’s a difference in requiring a state to administer and requiring a student to complete an assessment. Federal law requires administration of the test, but does not compel students to complete the exams.

Then, there is state law. The memo lacks specific references to Tennessee statute, but there are a few sections that relate to testing.

TCA 49-1-6 includes references to performance assessment and the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). This portion of state law says that annual assessments will be administered in grades 3-8 and then outlines the secondary school testing schedule. Here again, the law notes tests will be administered, but contains no compulsory language for students.

Then there’s TCA 49-6-60 dealing with proficiency testing. This section specifically details testing to be administered in grades 8, 10, and 11 as a strategy to promote college readiness. As these three tests are required for graduation, they are essentially mandated. Students who don’t take them won’t complete the graduation requirements.

What’s missing? Language that compels a student to take the test or requires a district to compel students to take the test. The memo says that “state and federal” statutes specifically reference the expectation that students will complete the assessment. True, TVAAS and other accountability measures are made valid by significant student participation in state tests. But, that alone doesn’t make them compulsory. Unless it’s one of the three proficiency tests specifically referenced in the graduation requirements section, there’s no language directly compelling students to participate in annual assessments.

It’s worth noting that while the Department of Education has said there would be penalties if districts refused to administer the TNReady tests, the memo says districts are not authorized to allow “opting-out” or test refusal. What it doesn’t say is what impact allowing opt-out would have on the district. If a district offers the test, and students refuse, then what?

Stay tuned as Phase II starts later this month.

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

 

 

A Little Less Ready

Grace Tatter reports on proposed reductions to the total testing time for TNReady:

After weeks of hard conversations prompted by the rocky debut of Tennessee’s new assessment, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Monday that the state will reduce the number of hours that students spend taking TNReady in its second year.

Beginning in 2016-17, the State Department of Education plans to scrap TNReady Part I in math and streamline the English portion of Part I, she said. Department officials will determine how many hours of testing the changes will save students in the coming weeks.

On average, third-graders this year will have spent 11.2 hours taking TNReady end-of-course tests; seventh-graders, 11.7 hours; and high school students, 12.3 hours.

The announcement comes amid concerns expressed by parents and district leaders and at least one district inquiring about the possibility of not administering TNReady Phase II this year.

Tullahoma’s Dan Lawson said:

“Outside of RTI-squared and TNReady, we don’t have time to do anything,” Lawson said. “We’re trying to have class on occasion.”

For more on education politics and policy in the volunteer state, follow @TNEdReport

Phase II Ready

Now that the troublesome Phase I of TNReady is over, districts in coming weeks will move to TNReady Phase II.

Grace Tatter over at Chalkbeat has more on what Phase II means for students and schools:

The second part of TNReady features mainly multiple-choice questions (although, unlike in years past, students sometimes will be able to select several choices.) It has about 60 questions each for math and English, split up over two days. When the test originally was to be administered online, Part II also was supposed to include interactive questions in which students could use drag-and-drop tools, but those won’t be possible on the paper version.

So, multiple choice, no interactive questions, and shorter testing times for this phase.

It’s worth noting that the test is in two phases and includes significantly more total testing time than was common in years past — up to 11 hours.

Also, at least one district is seriously discussing the option of not administering Phase II at all in light of all the disruption caused by the false start on Phase I.

What do you think? Is 11 hours of testing too much for the youngest students? Should Tennessee districts skip Phase II this year and focus on instruction instead of test prep?

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