Testing Flexibility

Tennessee state representative Terry Lynn Weaver (R-40) and Professional Educators of Tennessee Executive Director JC Bowman offer thoughts on the need for testing flexibility.

In Tennessee, we appreciate straight talk and candor. So, to the point: statewide testing has taken a wrong turn in public education, not to mention Tennessee has failed in our statewide testing administration since 2012. Now we are about to start over, possibly with a new vendor. There is no guarantee this will work any better than previous attempts.

At no point were any of the previous testing problems the fault of students or educators in Tennessee. The state has simply failed students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers. We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies, and even by our government. Clearly, there is a problem with testing in Tennessee. It is a flawed testing system, which could be addressed if we were to pilot innovative approaches that encourage our schools and their communities to work together and design solutions without bureaucratic hurdles. That would be a sensible strategy to pursue.

This is why some legislators have argued for allowing LEAs to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment. This request continues to be asked for by several high-performing districts across the state frustrated by state failures. We must also break down the bureaucratic barriers that have kept educators and school districts from pursuing solutions to the unique challenges of their communities. We should pursue reliable tests that provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students, or perhaps allow districts the opportunities to use these alternative assessments.

The current testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. No single test should be a determinant of a student’s, teacher’s or school’s success. Although we need testing to measure the progress of our students, we should recognize that these tests are often unreliable in evaluating teachers and schools. True measurement of progress should instead consist of several benchmarks, not just testing. However, testing goes beyond the purposes of entrance or placement into courses in postsecondary education or training programs.

With each testing failure, educators and districts have unfairly been the ones who bear the brunt, quite unfairly, of parental anger. Students also suffer, with everything from loss of instruction time to not understanding their educational progress. When we make education decisions on the basis of unreliable or invalid test results, we place students at risk and harm educators professionally. This is especially unfair to the hardworking teachers in our state.

We must listen to educators on the ground, and continue to champion innovation in public education. Educators want that chance to be inventive, and they understand the need to challenge the status quo to get results for the students in their community. Therefore, the state should not stand in the way of any LEA that wishes to use an alternative that is comparable to state-mandated assessment. The LEA should be required to notify parents or guardians of students that the LEA is using an approved testing alternative. In addition, the LEA, before using an approved testing alternative, should be required to notify the Tennessee Department of Education, in writing, of the grade level and subject matter in which the LEA intends to use an approved testing alternative. Senator Mark Pody and Representative Clark Boyd have proposed legislation (SB1307/HB1180) to allow districts this testing flexibility. It is similar to legislation that Senator Janice Bowling and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver have introduced previously (SB488/HB383).

High-quality assessments convey critical information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves and create the basis for improving outcomes for all learners. However, when testing is done badly or excessively, it takes important time away from teaching and learning and limits creativity from our classrooms. It is important that Tennessee improves postsecondary and career readiness for all Tennessee students. Flawed testing does not move us toward that goal. It is time we allow our districts the flexibility that they have requested.

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

Unable to Verify

As TNReady prepares to start in a few weeks, more reassuring news from the Tennessee Department of Education.

Here’s the story, as reported by the Tennessean:


Tennessee education officials haven’t been able to verify if Questar Assessment, the state’s TNReady vendor, has the capacity to serve all test takers in the coming weeks. 


According to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, “flu and floodings” that impacted schools have prevented the department from running two verification tests ahead of statewide testing in April.
“We had one verification test and too many schools were closed, and we had another verification test and didn’t have enough schools because of flus and flooding,” Schwinn, who started her job in February, said. 

After a year of testing marked by hackers and dump trucks, it would seem the TNDOE would do more to ensure tests were ready this year. Or, even better, just take the year off and work to get testing “right” with a new vendor in 2019-20.

Instead, they push forward. So far, unable to verify the testing platform will work in spite of reports that practice tests aren’t always going so well.

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

Your support – a one-time or ongoing donation — helps make education reporting possible.



Toward Testing Transparency

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers thoughts on testing transparency as the next round of TNReady approaches.

Thomas Jefferson believed: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” We could not agree more. In Tennessee, our state agencies have a core function to serve the citizen’s interest, and protect our taxpayers to the benefit of the state. To ensure our school districts have aligned standards and instructional practices, we must have greater transparency in testing. Recently, Senate Bill 753/House Bill 1246 was introduced to address this critical issue.

This legislation, which we call the Testing Transparency Act, is common sense and is supported by both the Professional Educators of Tennessee and the Tennessee School Boards Association. The legislation will require the Tennessee Department of Education to release 50 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2019-20 school year, 75 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2020-21 school year, and 100 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2021-22 school year, to each LEA and public school. This proposed legislation will require these questions to be sent no less than 30 days after completion of TCAP tests.

That sounds simple enough, and it allows the state time to develop an adequate supply of questions. More importantly, it creates transparency in the system, and restores trust to the process. This importance is critical, if stakeholders are to have any faith in our testing system. By releasing the test questions LEAs can:

  1. Have informed discussions about a school or district’s curriculum.
  2. Allow educators to explore the links between concepts they teach and ways to measure students’ understanding.
  3. Permit districts and educators to design their own assessment according to their needs.
  4. Encourage districts and educators to reflect on the performance of their students in comparison to the performance of students in other schools and districts.

Accurate or not, tests have come to be viewed by the public as indicators of how well schools are educating our children. If this were the sole standard by which we measure success, then we have failed students, parents, and taxpayers—and especially our educators. Our state has spent an inordinate amount of time and money to test our students, without much to show for our efforts. It is time that changes, and the state must be willing to embrace this needed transparency.

The fixation by policymakers with increasing test scores, often overlooks the point that many policymakers, stakeholders and the general public do not really understand testing and/or the process. This helps lift the veil of secrecy, fosters needed discussion and helps us better measure what our educators teach.

If you believe in the importance of testing, your support of the Testing Transparency Act helps ensure that our public schools are not judged with the wrong assessment tools. If you do not support the Testing Transparency Act, you will be unable to bolster a case to create a different way of measuring school performance and support continued spending on statewide testing without having a chance to see the results. Senate Bill 753/House Bill 1246 is needed in Tennessee, and we encourage its passage.

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

The War on Teachers

This piece from Chalkbeat describes education policy challenges in Indiana, but it could just as easily have been written about what has been and is happening here in Tennessee.

The story is based on a survey of school superintendents in Indiana. The school leaders are asked to talk about the challenges of finding and retaining teaching talent.

Here’s some of what they had to say:


Indiana’s war on teachers is winning


“Pay teachers more and offer better benefits. Respect the profession.”


“Overworked. Little or no pay raises in the past and none expected in the future.”


“The burnout rate increases because teachers are covering higher caseloads because of the shortage. Even when provided with an annual increase, overall morale of teachers in the state is low.”


The demands on teachers due to testing accountability makes it not worth teaching — takes the love and passion out of education.


“There is absolutely no incentive to stay in teaching or for that matter to pursue a degree in education. The pay is ridiculous. The demands are excessive. Teachers don’t really teach anymore, just test and retest. All the data-driven requirements are not successful in helping a student learn. Yes, we should have some testing but the sheer amount is ridiculous. I think we should go back to letting teachers teach. Let them be the professionals they were hired to be. ”


“There is a disconnect between what the state requires and what pre-service teachers are taught.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Tennessee has been facing a growing teacher shortage for years now. As early as 2014, it was noted:

Since 2009, Tennessee has identified shortages in the overall numbers of K-12 teachers needed for public schools as well as teachers for specific subjects. There is a critical need in the state for STEM teachers, as well as shortages in high school English, social studies, world languages, Pre-K through high school special education, and English as a second language

In other words, state policymakers have been predicting a teacher shortage for a decade now and instead of adopting policies to address it, have adopted policies that in the words of some are “driving teachers crazy.”

We have a testing system that simply doesn’t work.

We offer salaries that don’t compare favorably to the private sector.

Our state’s schools are poorly resourced and the state funding formula is broken.

Now, our Governor and some legislative leaders want to divert public money to unaccountable private schools.

Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Ask Nashville, a district that has seen a rise in virtual classrooms as it struggles to fill teaching positions.

It’s no wonder some teachers are considering a strike as an option to get the attention of lawmakers who so far have ignored their pleas.

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

Your support makes reporting education news sustainable.



Hacker or Dump Truck

Another testing cycle, more TNReady trouble.

It’s time for testing in Tennessee again. Or, at least, it’s time for schools to begin the time-honored tradition of having students take practice tests to ensure that the state’s testing vendor is getting the job done and the online testing system will work.

Surprising exactly no one, some schools are reporting problems with the testing platform as their students begin practice testing. At least one school reported that at least half the students were unable to access the TNReady test during practice today.

This should definitely encourage students, teachers, and parents as we approach the test-heavy month of April.

Last year, we heard about dump trucks and hackers causing TNReady problems. It’s not clear what the planned excuses are this year.

Certainly, our new Commissioner of Education is working with her team of school choice advocates to devise this year’s round of fake TNReady stories. Then, they’ll come up with lies to tell the General Assembly so no real policy change takes place.

Seriously, though, if your school is or has been engaged in TNReady practice testing, I’d love to know how it’s going. Are you having problems? What are they? Let me know at andy@tnedreport.com


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

Your support makes reporting education news possible.



Testing Choices

Oak Ridge is the latest school system to explore the idea of alternatives to TNReady for high school students. Specifically, members of the Oak Ridge Board of Education are discussing shifting to ACT tests.

More from the Oak Ridger:

School Board member Angi Agle said she had seen a newspaper article from Middle Tennessee that reported that another “high performing” school had requested to opt out of the TNReady test and instead use the ACT suite. While Agle did not mention the district by name, The Mount Juliet News identified Wilson County Board of Education as unanimously requesting that its district be allowed to replace TNReady with the ACT Aspire suite of assessments.

“This spurred a question. Do we want to look at that?” Agle said. She also said the Tennessee School Boards Association had requested that the Tennessee Legislature pass what she called “permissive legislation” allowing districts to choose whether to use the ACT suite, the SAT suite or the TNReady tests. Fillauer confirmed that statement.

Agle said the ACT suite is nationally recognized and “aligns with our standards.” She said some school systems fear the ACT suite is “harder,” but that did not worry her.

“I think that our students would do fine with that test because we know that we’re building toward the ACT. That’s what our teachers are doing already,” Agle said. While she said there may be reasons not to use the ACT Suite, she said “permissive legislation” would allow Oak Ridge Schools officials to choose.

Districts are suggesting a move to ACT due to persistent problems with TNReady.

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

Your support helps keep us writing!


 

Race to the Bottom: Testing

Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released an analysis of the Race to the Top experience in Tennessee yesterday. The document highlights the failures of the Haslam Administration to effectively implement the program as had been envisioned.

Pinkston references testing and TNReady as among the ways Team Haslam failed our students and schools. Specifically, in Chapter 18:

TNReady, the $30-million standardized testing system a blogger once dubbed “Haslam’s Hindenburg,” still isn’t ready for prime time. A new assessment vendor, Questar, managed to deploy tests in spring 2017, but mostly in paper form versus the comprehensive online platform promised in Race to the Top seven years earlier. In a ham-handed attempt to boost students’ spirits ahead of testing season, Gov. Haslam mailed out Number Two pencils to kids across the state. The blog Tennessee Education Report derided him in a headline — “Haslam to Kids: Be Ready Even Though TN Hasn’t Been.”

In 2018, TNReady actually fared worse. Hiccups included problems with students and teachers logging into the online test as well as a severed fiber cable delivering internet service to schools. Candice McQueen, the education commissioner, even brought in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security to investigate a supposed cyber-attack. But she ended up with egg on her face again after state officials determined that Questar caused TNReady’s problems by making unauthorized changes in the testing system. Later, state auditors acknowledged that McQueen’s oversight of test administration “fell short of expectations.”

Thankfully, new Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has promised to make TNReady her top priority. If she were making students her top priority, she’d propose taking at least a year off of testing altogether and re-evaluating how Tennessee assesses student progress.

Not surprisingly, the failed Haslam education team left Schwinn a mess to clean up:

With just months to go before a company is supposed to take over Tennessee’s troubled assessment program, the state has yet to release its request for proposals, potentially putting its next vendor on course for another rushed timeline to testing.

The state’s education department had aimed to solicit proposals by December, receive bids by February, and make a decision by April. Now officials are looking at February to unveil the document that will outline Tennessee’s testing requirements after three straight years of headaches under two different companies.

Will Tennessee keep on moving in this direction? Racing to the bottom? Will we continue taking pride in our status as the “one glaring exception” among states shifting to online testing?

While lots of states are moving to online testing, one expert says Tennessee is unique:

“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.

 

Why is Tennessee in the unique position of having the worst online testing transition in the country?

The reality is that Tennessee’s online-testing mess has left everyone in a difficult position, said Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization.

“The state has not [made] stability a key priority in their testing vendors,” Aldeman said.

 

So, here we are. 2019, a new commissioner, and a huge mess. That’s just testing. As Pinkston notes, there’s much more.

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

Your support helps keep the education news flowing!


 

This Seems Bad

Is Tennessee on track for another TNReady mess? It sure seems that way.

Chalkbeat has more on the rushed timeline to get a new vendor in place for Fall 2019:

With just months to go before a company is supposed to take over Tennessee’s troubled assessment program, the state has yet to release its request for proposals, potentially putting its next vendor on course for another rushed timeline to testing.

The state’s education department had aimed to solicit proposals by December, receive bids by February, and make a decision by April. Now officials are looking at February to unveil the document that will outline Tennessee’s testing requirements after three straight years of headaches under two different companies.

NOT OPTIMAL

Incoming Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn — who was recruited by new Gov. Bill Lee partly for her experience with assessments in two other states — acknowledges that the timetable is not optimal.

“If I look at other states, including the two that I’ve overseen in Delaware and Texas, the traditional timeline is that a new vendor has a year to set up processes that are really strong and then you execute,” she told Chalkbeat.

“That being said,” she continued, “the responsibility that we have at the department is to follow whatever guidelines, legislation, and expectations are set for us. The expectation is that we have a new vendor in place for next school year, and we will do whatever we can to ensure that is as strong a transition as possible.”

Umm??

Seriously, Tennessee?

Are we going to do this to our kids again?

It sure looks that way.

Hackers. Dump Trucks. Lies. Rushed Timelines. Welcome to Tennessee, Penny Schwinn!

 

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

Your support keeps the education news coming!


 

Testing Priorities

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has said she will make getting TNReady “right” her top priority.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts for right-sizing testing in Tennessee:

 

When a test fails over and over again, students stop taking it seriously. When the data is either not returned on time or is the result of a badly botched test administration, teachers are not well-served. Further, parents can’t trust the results sent home — which undermines the entire process.

 

Our next Commissioner of Education must present a plan that moves us away from a test that does more harm than good. We should explore alternatives that reduce total testing time and even those that move away from testing kids every single year. It is also worth taking a year off of testing altogether in order to spend time developing a plan that actually serves our students well.

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


 

Fortune Teller

While reading this piece on Nashville’s large and possibly unsustainable debt burden, I was reminded of the time I imagined what former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean might have said (and done) on a range of issues had he actually been a progressive.

Imaginary Karl Dean had this to say back in 2013:

Dean first suggested that Metro Nashville Schools stop its over-reliance on testing in spite of state mandates.  He noted the practice of data walls as emblematic of the current emphasis on test-based measures of student success and suggested that the schools might try focusing on the whole child.

Turns out, the warning about testing perhaps foretold years of problems ranging from TCAP quick score issues to TNReady failure and lies.  If only policy makers had been paying attention.

Imaginary Karl also offered this:

“It’s not the schools that are failing,” Dean said. “MNPS teachers work hard every single day to reach the children in their care.  But too many of those students arrive hungry and without access to health care or basic shelter.  It’s our community that has failed the families of these children.”

Dean noted that nearly 3 of every 4 MNPS students qualifies for free or reduced price lunch.  He went further to note that 7500 Davidson County families with school age children earn incomes below the federal poverty line (Source: American Community Survey of the U.S. Census).

“We’re simply not supporting the ENTIRE community,” Dean said. “When so many families are working hard and can’t make ends meet, there’s a fundamental problem in the local economy.  Rising income inequality is bad for Nashville.  We must work to address it together now.”

Dean pledged to push for changes in state law to allow Nashville to adopt a living wage and also pledged to use his considerable clout with the General Assembly to advocate for a $10 an hour state minimum wage.

Fast forward to 2019 and we see a city that’s pricing out working class families. Meanwhile, the legislature overrides any attempt at improving wages or working conditions. The situation makes this suggestion seem even better now than it did back in 2013:

Dean said he would work with the staff at Music City Center to turn the nearly $600 million facility into a community center and transitional housing for the working poor.  He noted that it would include free dental and vision clinics for children and an urgent care center for basic medical needs.

“This facility will set Nashville apart as a city that puts people first and will no longer fail its children and families.”

The basic point: We keep having the same conversations. Nothing actually happens. City and state leaders keep saying words, but failing to take action to move us forward.

Another recent story further brings this point home. Much has been made of the relatively low pay Nashville teachers receive. A proposal to provide some form of “low-cost” teacher housing is getting discussion — and pushback:

Mayor Briley is spearheading the proposal to turn the 11-acre property in South Nashville currently used to store and repair school buses into affordable housing for teachers. The city wants to trade it, meaning a developer could build on the land in exchange for other land where the district can build a new bus barn.

“A lot of us have families.  A lot of us have advanced degrees. We don’t want public housing, we want a professional salary,” said Amanda Kail, who teaches at Margaret Allen Middle School. “If you have to public housing for teachers then there is something seriously wrong with our city.”

The underlying issue here is pay. It’s something I’ve written about quite a bit. Specifically, I wrote this in 2015 about Nashville’s then-emerging teacher pay crisis:

Long-term pay increases in MNPS don’t keep pace with those in other, similar districts. Taking Denver as an example, a teacher who received NO ProComp incentives and maintained only a bachelor’s degree would make at Step 13 very close to what an MNPS teacher with similar education makes at Step 20. In all other cities examined, the top step is higher (from $3000 to $15,000) than it is in MNPS.

Two years later, I added this:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?

Then this:

No, better pay alone won’t solve the teacher shortage being experienced in MNPS. But, failure to address the issue of teacher compensation will mean more virtual Ravens, Cobras, and Bears in the future.

This is a problem that could be clearly seen years ago and which still hasn’t been adequately addressed.

It’s now 2019. Still, nothing. No significant movement on a teacher pay crisis that was looming years ago. Decision makers had information available and did nothing.

While we’re on the topic of predicting the future, back in 2013, Governor Bill Haslam and then-Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman made a big deal of Tennessee being the “fastest-improving” in national test scores as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Here’s what I wrote then:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Then, in 2015, added:

This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

Turns out, those predictions were rather accurate:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

 

So, here’s the deal: If you want to know not only what IS happening in Tennessee education policy, but also what WILL happen, read Tennessee Education Report.

What’s coming in 2019? Vouchers!

Also ahead: More platitudes about “access” and “equity.” Oh, and you can count on some words about the importance of testing and benchmarking and rigor and high standards.

What’s not going to happen? There will be no significant new investment in schools initiated by our Governor or legislature. Our state will not apply for an ESSA waiver to move away from excessive testing. There will be no large scale commitment to a living wage or health care access.

Instead, our state (and it’s largest, most vibrant city) will continue to fail many among us. Our policymakers will continue to spread the lie that we just can’t afford to do more.

Maybe one day, Imaginary Karl (or someone with his views) will lead Tennessee out of the wilderness and into a land where we honestly approach (and tackle) our many great challenges.

 

 

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

Your support makes education fortune telling possible!