Truly Disturbing

Will TNReady be ready this year? Some employees at the Tennessee Department of Education are raising alarms, according to a story from Fox 17 in Nashville.

The story details emails from whistleblowers within the department who call the current work environment “truly disturbing.” The complaints note that staffing issues — an unusually high turnover rate — are creating problems with preparation for this year’s assessment:

The three whistleblowers which wrote to FOX 17 News all requested anonymity to protect their professional careers. Their ultimate concern with the new hires and staff turnover is that the state is unprepared to administer a successful TCAP — the test that measures success in the classroom. Even at full staff, the state has had problems effectively administering the test in the past. Several have left the assessment team including the two individuals with the most experience in “assessment content and logistics.”

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.”

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.

So, here we go again. Another year, another warning about potential TNReady trouble. Now, of course, we’re also stuck with a Governor who seems not to know or care about how to run government effectively.

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TNReady for the Stone Age

Much has been made about this year’s TNReady administration, which appeared to happen without any problems. In fact, Chalkbeat reports:


While education vouchers consumed the headlines this spring, Tennessee students in grades 3-11 were quietly taking their annual TNReady tests. The month-long testing window ended last week with about 2 million tests completed, a third of which were submitted online. While Tennessee had scaled back computer-based testing after last year’s technical problems, this year’s successful online administration for high schoolers still marked an important milestone in the TNReady era.

To be clear, Tennessee students (and teachers and parents) have become accustomed to a failed test administration and/or delayed results.

So, for the first time in 5 years, the TNReady test “worked.” It worked because it was mostly administered using old technology. Pencil, paper, a bubble sheet. Miraculously, the vendor was even able to return “quick scores” to districts in a timely fashion.

Not solved: The immense amount of time students spend in test prep and the lost instructional time during the “testing window.” Also not solved: Tennessee remains one of the few states still unable to successfully administer an online test and return the results in a timely fashion. In fact, we may be unique among states in the level of difficulty we’ve experienced:

“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.

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, Tennessee has the distinction of being the only state in America NOT able to effectively transition to an online testing platform that works. What separates Tennessee from these other states? Competent leadership in the Department of Education. That is, Tennessee’s DOE is unique in the level of incompetence consistently demonstrated.

For those interested in how this impacts TVAAS, it is highly problematic in terms of reliability. We’ve had failed TNReady, pencil and paper TNReady, hacker and dump truck TNReady, and another round of pencil and paper. It is IMPOSSIBLE to have consistent, reliable growth data based on these results. Still, teachers are evaluated on these results. Schools are held accountable for these results. Principals are told these results are key to their jobs.

Next year, TNReady will be administered by a new vendor on pencil and paper.

So, in 2020, Tennessee students will be using Stone Age technology to complete a tests kids in almost every other state are taking online. Nice to know Fred Flintsone runs our DOE.

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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.

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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.

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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


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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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