A Fond Farewell

Our friends over at Bluff City Ed announced this week they are saying goodbye.

Jon even had a brief stint with us as his blog was transitioning. He’ll be keeping the content up – and there’s lots of good content.

BCE started about 6 months after we started TNEdReport. Jon, Ezra, and the other writers were often my source for information on what was happening in Memphis.

As Jon points out, Chalkbeat is here now, and they provide very solid coverage of the education landscape. But the insider perspective and the in-depth analysis from BCE will be missed.

To that end, I’d like to extend an invitation to teachers and education activists in Memphis seeking an outlet to publish about what’s happening in the education landscape there. If you have story ideas or an article to pitch, get in touch. Just email me at andy AT spearsstrategy DOT com

In the meantime, I want to wish Jon and friends well. A great blog that provided a great service — and one that will remain a great source of information and historical context.


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


What Does ESSA Mean to You?

Jon Alfuth is the newest addition to the Tennessee Education Report team. In his inaugural post, he breaks down the newly-signed Every Student Succeeds Act.

This last week saw the passage of the successor to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Every Student Succeeds Act. After months and months of negotiations, this legislation is suddenly a reality. I’m here to break to down and give you an idea of what it means for districts across Tennessee.

NCLB, Waivers and Race to the Top

First, you have to start with No Child Left Behind and education policy under the Obama administration. The legislation massively ramped up the Federal Government’s involvement in what was traditionally a state dominated education system. The 2002 law set ambitious long term goals that every student would be proficient by an agreed upon date, required states to establish systems to track student performance and set stiff penalties for schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress towards those goals.

It didn’t go as planned. Early in the Obama administration (and arguably before), it was clear that the 100 percent proficiency goals and timeframe was an admirable dream, but a dream none the less. The Obama administration chose to grant states waivers from many provisions of federal policy, but only if the states adjusted their education policy to fit the administrations education agenda. Specifically, states had to implement college and career ready expectations for students, target low performing schools and population groups and create teacher and principal evaluation systems with student growth as a component.

Then came the Race to the Top, a competition among states for funding to implement education reform policies in each state. Tennessee was one of the first states to receive funding and required states to build assessment systems for standards, adopt data systems, support teachers and school leaders and create interventions in low performing schools. Tennessee already had TVAAS in place, so we were a natural fit as two of the key requirements were already met. One of the biggest innovations that has come out of Race to the Top is the Achievement School District, which was spurred largely by federal money.


Now we get to the Every Student Succeeds Act. The act tones down much of the direct or indirect influencing of local education policy that has been promoted by the Federal Government while keeping the “spirit” of NCLB in place.

The goal in the compromise bill that has now been signed into law is to keep in place the structure preferred by democrats that forces states to report on and take action to rectify education inequities while at the same time catering to republican desires for more state and local control.

Here are some of the highlights of how this bill differs from the NCLB and Obama era policy:

  • Testing– under NCLB, testing was once a year every year In grades 3-8 with one test in high school. ESSA keeps the frequency of testing in place, but allows states to be more flexible with what tests are given and when in the year they are given.
  • Standards– ESSA takes the same tack as NCLB, supporting higher standards, but includes an interesting provision that prohibits the Secretary of Education from “influencing, incentivizing or coercing” states to adopt common core.
  • Accountability–ESSA pulls back from the NCLB era significantly and allows states to essentially come up with their own accountability goals, as long as those plans are submitted to the Department of Education. This contrasts with NCLB, which prescribed interventions from the top down. ESSA also relaxes the influence that test scores are required to play in accountability systems.
  • School evaluation– under NCLB, evaluation focused mostly on test scores. ESSA allows states to expand the scope of their evaluation to include “other measures” such as graduation rate, student engagement and disciplinary data in evaluation.
  • Low performing schools –under NCLB states had to address low performing schools using mostly prescribed methods. ESSA specifies that states must address the bottom 5% of schools by assessment scores and high schools with low graduation rates or underperforming subgroups, but again leaves it up to the states to decide how.
  • Overtesting – the law contains a provision to encourage states to eliminate unnecessary state and local tests and provides them funding to do so. It also would provide support to districts to analyze the amount of time teachers test with the end goal of reducing that time.

Dramatic Change?

Looking over these provisions, the overall theme of ESSA in my eyes is state designed accountability monitored by the federal government. This differs markedly from the spirit of NCLB, which used heavy handed top down methods to impose change. Now states are much more on the hook to come up with their own strategies to improve schools.

That said, this isn’t that different than what has been done under the waivers granted by the Obama administration. Waivers required states to submit a plan, which was then reviewed by the federal government and approved or turned down. The same concept seems to be at play within ESSA, but with more freedom granted to the states to decide what and how to address the different requirements embedded within ESSA.

Short Term Impact

Here in Tennessee, we already do much of what the flexibility under ESSA would allow. We’ve already started breaking up our assessments over the course of the year with the upcoming implementation of TNReady, where students will take their yearly assessment in two different sessions in the spring. We’ve also started down the road of eliminating unnecessary assessments.

We also have two existing interventions for low performing schools (ASD and iZone), we report our test data and have established data systems in place.

We also effectively tackled the standards issue by writing our own standards by revising and adding to the common core.

In sum, I don’t think we’re going to see a dramatic transformation of how we conduct education in Tennessee a la Race to the Top. I think the more likely outcome is that teachers and schools will start seeing small tweaks here and there to the education policy frameworks established over the past few years.

One area in which I think we could see some movement is in the area of reducing redundant testing. My hope is that the Tennessee DOE takes advantage of the funds available through ESSA to study the number of tests and the time that is spent preparing for them to take these assessments.

Longer Term Impact

My final take on all of this is that much of the result of ESSA locally will depend on the actions taken by constituents and their interactions with state elected officials. I’ve already explained why I don’t think much will happen, primarily because we’ve taken advantage of much of the flexibility already afforded us under NCLB waivers.

But that could change quickly depending on constituent mobilization. Local and state level elected officials are much more responsive to public opinion and Tennessee’s legislators seem especially so. For example, if we see tremendous upswing in the opt-out movement we might see a large rollback in the amount, frequency and design of our accountability measures.

For advocates of the current system, much of ESSA will come down to defending what has already been won in the past decade. The systems for a standards based accountability system are in place, and those that support this vision of education will need to likely fight tooth and nail to keep it intact.

In the end, movement will be up to advocates for the new states quo to push to keep what we already have and for opponents of the system to push for what they want to see change. That’s something that is very difficult to predict.

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


Welcome Jon Alfuth

We are pleased to announce the addition of our newest writer, Jon Alfuth.

Jon is a teacher and administrator in Memphis and has done outstanding writing at Bluff City Ed. He’ll bring coverage of education issues as they impact Shelby County to Tennessee Education Report.

He’s written about the BEP and how it impacts Shelby County and he’s written about TVAAS and how misusing it can negatively impact both teachers and students. He’s done so much more in his time at Bluff City Ed and we are delighted to have him on board.

Here’s his official bio:

Jon Alfuth is a teacher and administrator at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, TN. He previously worked as a teacher in legacy-Memphis City Schools. Jon blogged previously at bluffcityeducation.com and contributes regularly to print and online publications including the Commercial Appeal and the Huffington Post. Jon is an alumnus of Teach for America as well as Teach Plus and SCORE’s policy fellows programs. He earned his B.S. and M.P.A from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Follow him at @jwalnuth and @bluffcityed


Quickly Inflated

Jon Alfuth has a piece over at Bluff City Ed that answers the question: Did this year’s method of calculating quick scores on TCAP result in grade inflation? The short answer is yes.

The post is complete with math and graphs that explain the two different methods for calculating quick scores and the possible grade inflation that resulted this year when the TN Department of Education switched to the cubed root method.

Here’s an excerpt that explains the point difference that would be expected based on the different methods for calculation:

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 student scoring 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.

In short, final grades in subjects required to factor in TCAP scores were higher this year than they have been in the past. In some cases, these “extra points” would have moved a student up a full letter grade.

Commissioner McQueen has indicated that this method will be used going forward as the state transitions to the TNReady test, starting next year. Of course, that test is entirely different from TCAP, so comparisons between the two are of limited value — at least until there are multiple years of TNReady data to use for comparative analysis.

More on Quick Scores:

A Call for Testing Transparency

That Was Quick

Quick and Confusing


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


Quick and Confusing

Over at Bluff City Ed, Jon Alfuth digs into the questions surrounding this year’s release of TCAP quick scores and their correlation to student performance on the TCAP.

This year, the way quick scores were calculated in relation to raw scores was shifted so that grades 3-8 (TCAP) scores matched the EOC scores students see in high school.

One key question is why make this change in the last year of TCAP? Next year, Tennessee students will see TNReady — so, making the calculation change now doesn’t seem to serve much purpose.

Alfuth does a nice job of explaining what’s going on and why it matters. Here are some key highlights:

Lack of Communication

They (TN DOE) didn’t make it clear to teachers, parents or students that they were changing the policy, resulting in a lot of confusion and frustration over the past few days as everyone grapples with these new quick scores.

An Explanation?

From the second memo, they note that they changed to raw scores because of concerns about getting final quick scores out on time during the transition to a new test, stating that if they did it based on proficiency, it would take until the middle of the summer to make them happen.

I’d buy that…except that the Department of Education has always been able to get the quick scores out on time before. And last I checked, we weren’t transition to TNReady this year – the transition occurs next year. So why mess with the cut scores this year? Is this just a trial run, an experiment? It feels like we’re either not getting the whole story, or that if we are there is some serious faulty logic behind this decision that someone is just trying to explain away.

It’s worth noting that last year, the quick scores weren’t available on time and most districts received a waiver from including TCAP scores in student grades. I note this to say that concern about getting quick scores out on time has some merit given recent history.

To me, though, this raises the question: Why are TCAP scores factored into a student’s grades? Ostensibly, this is so 1) students take the tests seriously and 2) how a teacher assesses a student matches up with the desired proficiency levels on the appropriate standards.

Of course, quick scores are only available for tested subjects, leaving one to wonder if other subjects are less important or valuable to a student’s overall academic well-being. Or, if there’s another way to assess student learning beyond a bubble-in test or even a test with some constructed response, such as TNReady.

I’d suggest a project-based learning approach as a means of assessing what student’s have actually learned across disciplines. Shifting to project-based learning with some grade-span testing would allow for the accountability necessary to ensure children are meeting state standards while also giving students (and their teachers) a real opportunity to demonstrate the learning that has occurred over an academic year.


The Department has also opened itself to some additional criticism that it is “massaging” the scores – that is, trying to make parents happy by bringing grades up in the last year under the old testing regime. We can’t say for certain that this is the motivating factor behind this step, but in taking this step without more transparency the Department of Education has opened itself up to this charge. And there will definitely be some people who accuse the state of doing this very thing, especially given the reasons that they cited in their memo. I personally don’t ascribe any sinister motives to the state, but you have to admit that it looks a little fishy.

In fact, TC Weber is raising some important questions about the process. He notes:

If people don’t believe in the fidelity of the system, it becomes too easy to attribute outside factors to the results. In other words, they start to feel that data is being manipulated to augment an agenda that they are not privy to and not included in. I’m not saying results are being manipulated or not being manipulated when it comes to our student evaluation system, but I am saying that there seems be a growing belief that they are, and without some kind of change, that perception will only grow. I’ve always maintained that perception is nine-tenths of reality.

As both Alfuth and Weber note, the central problem is lack of communication and transparency. As we shift to a new testing regime with uncertain results, establishing confidence in the system and those administering it is critical. After last year’s late score debacle and this year’s quick score confusion, establishing that trust will be difficult. Open communication and a transparent process can go a long way to improving perception and building support.

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

Adequate and Equitable

That’s what the Shelby County Schools are seeking from the state — adequate and equitable school funding. As the state currently provides neither, the Shelby County School Board voted Tuesday to hire legal counsel to pursue such funding, an action which may ultimately result in filing a lawsuit against the state, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Recently, Jon Alfuth over at Bluff City Ed suggested that Shelby County should join the 7 other Tennessee districts already suing the state over inadequate school funding.

According to the report, Board members referenced the 2007 funding formula update known as BEP 2.0 and noted that if it were fully and properly funded, Shelby County would receive $103 million in additional funding next year.

Rather than push for full funding of BEP 2.0, Governor Haslam has appointed his own task force asked to redistribute the pie rather than increase its size.

Other than chastising districts for asking for the full and equitable funding they deserve, the General Assembly did little this past session to address the BEP situation.

Three previous lawsuits against the state seeking improved school funding have all been successful and all resulted in significant cash infusions to local school districts.

More on the BEP:

Money Talks

Why is TN 40th?

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

Should Shelby County Schools Sue the State?

Jon Alfuth over at Bluff City Ed says YES!

Here’s the basic reason why:

Education funding has been creeping up slowly, but its not enough. We’re at a critical juncture in urban districts like Shelby County, and the only realistic way we are going to find the funds to adequately support our schools is from the state. Local taxes are tapped out and the district has cut to the bone. And at the same time, the state has indicated very little willingness to adequately fund BEP 2.0.

More on BEP Funding:

Why is He So Angry?

Money Talks

Hungry for BEP Reform

Of Poverty and Teacher Pay

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



The End of an Era

Over at Bluff City Ed, Jon Alfuth celebrates the end of the EOC testing era. Those tests will be replaced with TNReady next year.

Alfuth notes that there are many challenges with the current testing regime, including gaming the system and misalignment with current standards.

Here’s what he says he hopes the new tests provide:

First, I’d personally like to see aligned pre- and formative assessments to allow teachers to track tests throughout the year. These could be given to the districts and used to develop a benchmark for where students are starting and track their progress throughout the year. These should be designed by Measurement Inc. to ensure close alignment to the actual test.

Second, we need to see shorter tests. Asking students to sit for between 2 to 4 three hour assessments in a four day period is a lot, and it does stress kids out. I’d like to see the number of questions reduced on the new TNReady assessments to reflect this reality.

Third, we need better special education and special needs accommodations. I’m not a special education teacher myself, but from talking to some of my colleagues my understanding is that the accommodations for the EOC regime aren’t the greatest. Hopefully a technologically advanced test like TNReady (it can be given on paper or on a computer) could include better accommodations for kids with special needs. I also hope it makes automatic adjustments for students who, say, speak English as a second language.

Fourth, we need to see a substantial increase of resources aligned to the new assessments and SOON. Teachers need time to internalize the format at the types of questions that students will be asked to complete on the new assessments. That was one of the failings of PARCC and one reason I believe we no longer have it in Tennessee – teachers didn’t have enough supporting resources and backed off support for the assessment. Lets hope that TNReady doesn’t make the same mistake.

More on TNReady:

TNReady to Borrow Questions from Utah

Transition to TNReady Creates TVAAS Problems

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Trust Us and Stop Complaining

That seems to be the over-arching message from the Tennessee General Assembly as they continue to advance legislation designed to prevent those who disagree with the current “ed reform” agenda from having a strong voice.

The latest example is the so-called Educator Protection Act (HB645/SB604) designed to offer liability insurance to teachers at state expense. But, as Jon Alfuth notes over at Bluff City Ed, it seems the legislation has other implications:

 I can only speculate, but this looks like a quiet effort to continue the drive towards making the TEA irrelevant in the state. Pass this and one of the big draws of union membership, legal protection in the case of a law suit, suddenly becomes less important. The TEA does contend that teachers would still have to rely on them for legal fees according to the link cited above, but teachers wouldn’t need the liability coverage under the TEA any more as the state would provide it. It just removes one additional reason for teachers to join the union.

Weakening TEA and also Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) weakens the organized opposition to much of what passes as education reform – evaluations based on suspect statistical methods and vouchers, as just two examples.

This effort comes after just last week, an amendment was added to the state budget that was designed to limit local school boards in their efforts to seek more funding from the state.

The General Assembly seems to be sending a clear message to those who disagree with prevailing education policy: Trust us, and stop complaining.

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


Who is Sara Heyburn?

Jon Alfuth over at Bluff City Ed has an interview with the former teacher who is now the Executive Director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

One note that struck me in the interview was her expressed desire to hear more from teachers in the policy making process. Here’s what she had to say:

“We need to hear from teachers who are interested in policy making. Continue to persevere and look for those opportunities and find ways to make your voices heard.”

She also speaks to the strengths of existing policy outlets, and advises teachers to take part in them.

“The outlets we have now in our state are great. There are lots of opportunities for teachers to get involved.” However, she also emphasizes that teachers aren’t seeing what they want, they should work to create additional opportunities.

I absolutely agree that policymakers should look to teachers for guidance and insight on education policy decisions. Heyburn’s words sound like a welcome invitation for teachers to offer their perspective as policy is being made.

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