What Passes for Rigor

Nashville education blogger TC Weber takes on the recently released CREDO study of supposed student learning loss in his most recent post. It’s the study relied on by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn as she doubles down both on the need for kids to return to in-person instruction AND the critical need for ever more testing.

Here’s one paragraph that stood out to me:

Third, the need for rigorous student-level learning assessments has never been higher. In particular, this crisis needs strong diagnostic assessments and frequent progress checks, both of which must align with historical assessment trends to plot a recovery course. The losses presented here implicitly endorse a return to student achievement testing with the same assessment tools for the foreseeable future. At the same time, preserving and expanding the existing series is the only way to reliably track how well states and districts are moving their schools through recovery and into the future.

That’s directly from CREDO. Yes, they’re saying we need to continue with the testing regime we have. Since the folks at CREDO seem so interested in testing that aligns with “historical assessment trends,” let’s take a brief look at just how well testing has gone in Tennessee over the past few years.

To say that TNReady has been disappointing would be an understatement. From day one, the test has been fraught with challenges. There have been three vendors in five years, and a range of issues that caused one national expert to say:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Here’s more from the TNNotReady chronicles:

Hackers. Dump Trucks. Lies. Three vendors over five years. A broken system that sucks the life out of instructional time. That’s what CREDO and Commissioner Schwinn want to continue. Make no mistake, this is not about what’s good for Tennessee kids – it’s most definitely about what’s good for national testing companies and the Commissioner’s career aspirations.

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Where Did This Data Come From?

Haywood County’s Director of Schools (Joey Hassell) always asks the important questions. He’s a former Assistant Commissioner for Special Education at the Tennessee Department of Education, so he’s familiar with how the education policy game is played in Nashville. Fellow blogger TC Weber reports on the questions surrounding Schwinn’s manipulation of data to fit her narrative:

What I’m referring to, of course, is the Governor’s press conference where Lee and Schwinn handed out information that indicated Tennessee’s students were suffering a decrease in learning proficiency of 50% in literacy and 65%. The information was alarming but should have raised questions about how it was arrived at. As quoted by Chalkbeat,

“My biggest question is, where did this data come from? What districts provided it?” asked Joey Hassell, superintendent of schools in Haywood County, near Memphis. “We have not provided any data and, as far as I know, the state has not asked for it.”

According to the online magazine Center Square – who is currently providing some of the best coverage available on Tennessee Education issues – projections were developed from a study by the department conducted with national researchers in June of how students were projected to perform this year. Chalkbeat went a little further, pointing out that she also cited early diagnostic testing data voluntarily provided by some school districts, as well as the results of an optional state assessment that more than 30,000 students statewide reportedly took at the beginning of the academic year. None of which was provided to district leaders or members of the media.

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Gross Misrepresentation

That’s how one school district leader described Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s recent statements on learning loss as a result of school schedule changes related to COVID-19. Chalkbeat has more:

Pre-pandemic test data analyzed by national researchers — not recent back-to-school test results from Tennessee students — was the basis for state projections this week that proficiency rates will drop by 50% or more for third-grade reading and math due to schooling disruptions during the pandemic.

Schwinn had said her estimates were informed by back-to-school testing data that was voluntarily shared by some Tennessee school districts, combined with national study and analysis by two groups. But asked later for details, members of her staff referred only to “national researchers using historical, Tennessee-specific data.” That data dates from 2014 to 2019, before the coronavirus emerged in the U.S.

Numerous superintendents said Schwinn’s comments were misleading in suggesting that recent homegrown data was taken into account in formulating the state’s projections.

“This is about doing your homework,” said Leah Watkins, superintendent of Henry County Schools in West Tennessee. “Before the state releases numbers to millions of Tennesseans, let’s make sure it’s accurate and shared with appropriate context.”

She called the presentation a “gross misrepresentation” that left out important facts.

“It sends a message to the public of gloom and doom — that what we’re doing in our public schools is not adequate,” Watkins said.

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Perhaps Commissioner Schwinn is borrowing from the McQueen playbook when it comes to her relationship with the facts.

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Upheaval

The Tennessee Department of Education is in disarray, and the disruption is impacting students and their families, according to a recent story in Chalkbeat.


… the disbursements she receives to pay for curriculum and tutoring started showing up late, said Moore, who lives in Bartlett, northeast of Memphis. She had to borrow money in December to cover the costs. The state office she had known as responsive and helpful suddenly took weeks to return calls.


“Everything fell apart,” said Moore, who has limited income and receives disability payments.


Tennessee’s Republican-backed Individualized Education Account program, or IEA, is under increased scrutiny. Democrats and other voucher opponents are seizing on problems in the program — including parents being cited for disallowed purchases — to bolster their case that Tennessee can’t be trusted to launch a second, larger school voucher program this summer on Republican Gov. Bill Lee‘s accelerated timeline.


But Moore’s experience, and that of other parents like her, spotlights another aspect of the existing voucher program that has received little public attention: upheaval and uncertainty in the state Department of Education office charged with overseeing the relatively small initiative.


The resignations of the IEA director and her two staff members, a lag in replacing them, a failure by the state to answer pleas for more resources, and the challenges of overseeing a complicated program have all contributed to delayed disbursements and a frustrating information void in recent months, according to parents and current and former education department employees.

The challenges with the IEA voucher program and staff are just one example. Some in the Department of Education suggest the state will have difficulty administering the TNReady test this year:


An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

And then, there are reports of late night rants via email. Multiple sources confirm these reports.

All of this is occurring while the Department of Education also engages in questionable no-bid contracts such as the one awarded to ClassWallet to oversee the larger voucher program set to start in Memphis and Nashville this year.

Supposedly, all of this “upheaval” will be good for kids in the long-term. I suspect many school leaders, parents, and even legislators are becoming quite skeptical.

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No Bid? No Surprise!

At a legislative committee meeting Monday, it was revealed that the contract that outsourced administration of the Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme was awarded without competitive bidding. Chalkbeat has more:


A legislative review of new voucher rules gave Mitchell and other Democrats an opportunity to grill state education officials for almost two hours on Monday about details for the program’s start.


Among the revelations: The department did not go through a competitive bidding process or the legislature’s fiscal review committee to secure its contract with ClassWallet.

The lack of adherence to bidding procedures should come as no surprise as Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn faced similar challenges when she held a senior level position in the Texas Education Agency:


On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Kash’s supervisor? Penny Schwinn.

In short, Schwinn is doing what she’s always done: Bending the rules to serve her needs.

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Penny’s Turnover

WPLN reports on more concerns being raised about Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and turnover in the department she leads. Here’s more:


It’s no secret that the agency is struggling to retain employees. According to data provided by the state, the turnover rate under Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s first nine months is about 18%.


Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville, told WPLN News he’s been hearing from people in his district about the issues within the state agency and about the concerns of the turnover rate.


“What we have to (do) as legislators is we just monitor the situation and try to figure out what those factors are that’s contributing to the rate that we are seeing,” Hicks said.


Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, worries about the institutional knowledge in the agency.


“We do have concerns because of the amount of turnover, many from the institutional knowledge that we depend on to get answers,” White, the chairman of the House Education Committee, told WPLN News on Friday.

Earlier concerns raised by department insiders include a lack of readiness for this year’s administration of the TNReady test:


An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

The legislature reconvenes on January 14th. It will be interesting to see how these concerns are expressed.

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#Schwinning

Mercedes Schneider offers more detail on a case out of the Texas Education Agency that probably should have raised some concerns for Tennessee Governor Bill Lee BEFORE he hired now-Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.

On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The following day– November 22, 2017– Kash was abruptly fired via email. (For these details and more, see my March 19, 2018, post.)

She sued for wrongful termination, and on November 22, 2019– two years to the day following Kash’s termination– the USDOE Office of Hearings and Appeals ruled in Kash’s favor. From the ruling:

The OIG report found that Kash’s communications with OIG and TEA’s internal audit office were a contributing factor in TEA’s decision to terminate her employment. Although TEA asserted other reasons for firing Kash, the OIG report found TEA did not provide clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same the personnel action without Kash’s disclosure.

Now, Tennessee has a Commissioner of Education causing a bit of disruption and there are even questions about the relative readiness of this year’s TNReady test:

There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.

I guess that’s what you’d call Schwinning?

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

That’s the question teachers and school administrators may be facing during this year’s round of TNReady testing.

The Daily Memphian reports that thanks to new “real-time” management of the online TNReady test, state officials may be able to see if the online system is becoming overloaded and give districts an option to switch to paper tests on test day. Here’s more on that management nightmare:

“We have in the last six weeks made some pretty significant adjustments and improvements with the vendor,” Schwinn said after visiting Georgian Hills Elementary Achievement School in Frayser. “We are able to measure that in much smaller increments. We can see things in 3-second and 5-second intervals as opposed to hour intervals.”

The real-time view of how the online testing is moving could allow teachers and school administrators to make rapid decisions about whether to stay with the online testing or switch students to pencil-and-paper tests instead.

I bet teachers are super excited about this new development. Kids are in the computer lab, ready to test, and then are sent back to the classroom for a pencil and paper test because the system is (predictably) overloaded. Clearly, this is a solution developed in close consultation with actual teachers who actually administer the actual tests every year.

Wait, no? You mean Schwinn and the holdovers from the Huffman-McQueen DOE are still doing things the same exact way they always have?

Shocking!

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REFUSED

A Knox County parent has refused to allow her children take the state’s failed TNReady tests each of the last four years. WBIR has more:


A Knox County parent says she has refused to let her kids take TNReady exams for four years.
Elizabeth MacTavish and her husband are educators, and she understands the stress of standardized testing as both a parent and a teacher. 


We are spending millions of dollars on a test that is neither reliable nor valid, the testing companies that we’ve been using continually fail,” MacTavish said. 
Over the past few years, TNReady has had some problems. 
In 2016 the original online testing system failed. In 2017 about 1,700 tests were scored incorrectly. 
In 2018, the state comptroller’s office says there were login delays, slow servers, and software bugs.
Now, the state is looking for a new vendor for TNReady testing. Tuesday, it issued a request for proposal for next school year.
The Department of Education expects the new contract to be $20 million each year. It’s current contract with Questar is $30 million

Former Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen, who presided over all the failed iterations of TNReady, perpetuated the myth that not testing annually would result in a penalty from the federal government. In fact, that’s not entirely accurate:

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.

Current Commissioner Penny Schwinn has demonstrated she’s not actually listening to parents and teachers as she travels around the state and visits schools. Instead, she is determined to continue to pursue a testing model that has failed students, teachers, and schools across the state.

More than 80% of teachers believe the state should move to the ACT suite of assessments to replace TNReady. A similar number believe TNReady does not accurately reflect student ability.

For now, the state marches on and nothing changes. But, if more parents took the refusal approach, the state could be forced to truly reckon with a broken system.

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Penny’s Problem

Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner has a problem. While she’s going around the state and supposedly listening to teachers and parents, she’s missing the key message: No one trusts TNReady.

Just this week, the Maury County School Board passed a resolution opposing the continued use of TNReady tests. The Maury County Education Association immediately announced support of the move. This comes as a new survey reveals an overwhelming majority of teachers don’t believe TNReady is an accurate reflection of student performance.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Schwinn is reassuring everyone that the next iteration of TNReady will be just fine, despite the fact a new vendor won’t be in place until 2019.

It’s a line we’ve all heard before. Failed Commissioner Candice McQueen often told us that we’d get TNReady right “this year.” But we never did. TNReady is never ready. It hasn’t been and it seems likely it won’t be.

To be fair, Schwinn inherited a hot mess in taking over the Tennessee Department of Education. That said, exhibiting real leadership requires that she make tough choices. Instead, she’s trotting out the same tired lines Tennesseans have heard year after year.

We have a new governor named Bill. Just like the last Bill who was our governor, this one has chosen an education commissioner who is putting her head in the sand instead of standing up and facing the very real policy problems impacting our schools.

TNReady has consistently failed our students, teachers, and communities. Groups across the state are sending this message loud and clear. Still, the highest levels of power are ignoring the screaming masses.

“Trust us one more time,” they say.

We’d don’t. We won’t. We can’t.

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