You’re Fired….uh, Hired!

The Chattanooga Times Free Press notes that Governor Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen are considering ending the state’s relationship with Questar:

Gov. Bill Haslam said the state is conducting an independent review of its current contractor running the problem-plagued TNReady student testing system and, depending on its findings, the company could be out of the picture once its current contract ends in November.

The likely replacement for Questar is Education Testing Service (ETS):

McQueen said that in addition to the state’s third-party review of Questar’s operations, the state is already going to move “all of our test development and design” to Educational Testing Services, which she said has a “reputation for very high quality work.”

Sounds great, right? Firing the vendor that was baffled by hackers and dump trucks and replacing them with a group with a solid reputation.

Except for just one thing:

Education Testing Services, the global billion dollar nonprofit that administers more than 50 million tests (including the GRE and TOEFL) across the world, recently sealed an agreement to acquire Questar, a Minnesota-based for-profit testing service, for $127.5 million. According to the press release, Questar will become a separate for-profit subsidiary of ETS.

Questar offers what they describe as a “fresh and innovative” method of testing for grades 3-8—providing states with summative assessments, design support, scalable technological innovation, administrative help, scoring and reporting services.

Ok, so maybe ETS will step in and give its baby brother Questar some guidance going forward? Well:

The changes highlight a possible strategic shift for ETS whose reputation came under fire last year when the nonprofit had to pay $20.7 million dollars in damages and upgrades after multiple testing problems in Texas.

Let’s get this straight: Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen think no one in Tennessee understands Google? They are “firing” the company that messed up this year’s testing and hiring a new company that owns the old one and that also has a reputation for messing up statewide testing.

Solid move.

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

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YOU’RE FIRED Rubber Stamp over a white background.

An “F” for TNReady

The Johnson City Press offers a grade to the state for TNReady testing this year and it’s not a good one.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

Tennessee deserves a resounding “F” for TNReady. Schools should be able to test their pupils without hampering instruction and limiting the scope of education, and both parents and teachers should be able to have confidence in the scores. Surely, other states have a model Tennessee can apply.

The writers note that this is not the first year of testing trouble:

For more than a quarter century, Tennesseans have watched the state’s Department of Education fumble around with standardized testing and school accountability measurements. The last four years have been especially comical, leaving teachers and parents without a consistent understanding of achievement while squandering valuable learning time for students.

TNReady Irony?

So the state leapt into the ironically named TNReady, a new set of tests replacing the TCAP, in 2015. TNReady has been a disaster from the word go. The first year, the state canceled the online tests altogether for grades 3-8 and fired the original vendor, which failed to integrate the test online.

Last fall, the problems mounted as the Department of Education announced a new vendor had incorrectly scored about 9,400 TNReady assessments, affecting 70 schools in 33 districts. This year, that same vendor was the victim of what state officials described as a deliberate cyberattack, and connectivity issues slowed the whole system, thrusting everything into question yet again.

While the legislature took some action this year to address the immediate crisis, the state’s next Governor and the 2019 General Assembly should carefully examine our state’s testing culture. In the meantime, local school boards should be more aggressive in pushing back against a Commissioner of Education who has exhibited indifference to the chaos caused by years of bad testing management.

 

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Keep the education news coming!


 

A Comedy of Errors

That’s how one testing director described his district’s experience with TNReady. The Johnson City Press reports:

Supervisor of Testing Roger Walk described the school system’s experience as a comedy of errors with many disruptions during the testing and, in the end, a great loss of instruction time over the course of the school year.

The sentiments expressed in Johnson City echo those expressed by educators across the state. What’s worse, this year marks the second time in three years the state’s attempt to test students online has failed, resulting in significant lost instructional time and waste of taxpayer dollars.

As I noted recently:

Here’s what else I realized: This test will just keep going. No one will stop it. Governor Haslam has yet to seriously weigh-in and appears to be fully behind Commissioner McQueen despite years of testing failures. While Directors of Schools complain about the ridiculous excuses from DOE and poor execution from Questar, so far, no district has permanently suspended testing.

It’s also worth noting that the complete failure to administer online tests is not the only problem with TNReady. In fact, even before TNReady, the state had problems getting scores back to districts in a clear and timely manner.

Further, let’s talk again about what these tests really tell us: They demonstrate which districts have high concentrations of poverty and/or low investment in schools. Often, the two occur (not surprisingly) in the same districts. Here’s more on this:

One possible explanation for the expanding achievement gap is the investment gap among districts. That is, those districts with lower levels of poverty (the ones scoring higher on TCAP) also tend to invest funds in their schools well above what the state funding formula (BEP) generates. The top ten districts on TCAP performance spend 20% or more above what the BEP formula generates. By contrast, the bottom 10 districts spend 5% or less above the formula dollars.

It’s no accident that the districts that spend more are those with less poverty while the districts with less investment above the BEP have higher poverty levels. And, I’ve written recently about the flaws in the present BEP system that signal it is well past time to reform the formula and increase investment.

Testing in Tennessee has indeed been a “comedy of errors.” It’s long past time our policymakers right-size testing and take steps to address what some have called a “culture of testing” that dictates everything that happens in schools.

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


 

Changing the “Culture of Testing”

An article by Rebecca Horvath appeared recently in the Johnson City Press and focused on this year’s TNReady debacle. Horvath suggests a “culture of testing” dictates policy that doesn’t serve our students or teachers well.

Here’s a bit of what she has to say:

Nearby middle schoolers were faced with low-powered computers that had to be charged before their tests could begin. Then, they spent two hours trying to submit their tests via the crashed state site, through their lunch time, only to have to return after a late lunch and submit them. (Teachers are not allowed to submit them.) Some students waited 90 minutes for the first part of their test to be submitted online so they could continue with the second part. Can you imagine the stress and frustration for students and teachers?

So, students across the state have spent the entire school year preparing for these tests – the curriculum is designed around them – hearing about how important they are, even having the very school calendar based on testing dates, only to encounter problems immediately.

Every hour lost to testing difficulties is wasting tax dollars, increasing the already heavy stress on teachers and frustrating students and parents.

What, exactly, is the purpose here?

Having a way to assess student progress and success is important, of course. We have to be able to see what areas need improvement and what our schools do well. Standardized tests have been around for a long time, but the pressure and the culture that permeates the entire educational system is new. But tests should be tools, not weapons.

 

As I’ve written before, we keep moving forward with testing despite years of problems.

It’s also worth noting that the threat of financial penalties is essentially an empty one — unless the state absolutely insists on withholding money from schools for problems the state caused. There’s almost no chance any federal funds would be lost. I’d suggest local districts stand up and push back more aggressively.

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

Got a story idea or a column to submit? Email me at andy@tnedreport.com


 

About that Dump Truck

Was it really a dump truck that caused TNReady trouble last week? It seems likely (as many suspected at the time) the answer is “NO.”

Chalkbeat has more:

The troubles that at least two Tennessee school districts had connecting to the state’s online testing system last week were not related to a slashed fiber optic cable, the internet provider says.

State Department of Education officials blamed testing problems last Thursday on a fiber optic cable that had been severed by a dump truck in East Tennessee. That cable cut, officials said, resulted in slowed connectivity for students in some districts, while other school systems could not connect at all.

Still, the Tennessee Department of Education continues a pattern of excuse-making:

“There is no evidence this was anything other than a side effect of the issue with the fiber cut, but we continue to look into it,” Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said last week.

But internet provider Education Networks of America disputes that, saying that the West Tennessee issues were not related to the cable cut.

What happened in those cases remains a mystery, for now.

Meanwhile, despite thousands of students in districts across the state experiencing login and submission problems and testing being delayed or suspended on multiple days, the testing continues. There’s also still the question of just how many students received the wrong test and what all of this does to the testing environment.

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


 

Bump in the Road

While one Tennessee legislator refers to the TNReady trouble as a mere “Bump in the Road,” school districts around the state are stuck trying to pick up the pieces and move forward. Here’s an excerpt from a message to parents provided by Williamson County Schools with an outline of the challenges faced during TNReady testing so far:

On behalf of WCS, I want to apologize to you and your children for having to endure the State’s failed online testing program these past two weeks. We know that this has been difficult for everyone involved, and for that we are sorry.

State standardized testing has been required for decades in Tennessee. What has changed in the past few years is that the Tennessee Department of Education has been trying to transition to online testing. As many of you know, they have had massive difficulties with online administration of TNReady and high school End of Course exams (EOCs). These online problems have affected our grades 5-11.

Here’s a quick timeline of what our students and staff have undergone since State testing began last week:

Monday, April 16: Login problems affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Tuesday, April 17: Login problems affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Wednesday, April 18: WCS suspended testing to give the TDOE time to correct problems.

Thursday, April 19: Login problems affecting approximately 1,000 students.

Friday, April 20: No significant issues reported.

Monday, April 23: No significant issues reported.

Tuesday, April 24: System defaults caused 100+ students to take the wrong grade level test.

Wednesday, April 25: Delays and canceled testing affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Thursday, April 26: System lockout affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Friday, April 27: No significant issues reported.

That’s six days of problems over a two week testing period. Williamson County is now the third district (joining Knox and Anderson) to report students being given the wrong test.

This doesn’t look like a bump in the road, it looks like a huge mess. Thousands of students in just this one district have been impacted. Districts are now scheduling meetings to determine how to move forward in light of “hold harmless” and “adverse action” legislation.

Still, the Tennessee Department of Education insists that testing must keep going. A TDOE representative told House and Senate members this week that it was entirely possible to obtain valid data from this test administration.

We’ve supposedly had hackers and dump trucks running around trying to stop the test.

Still, Candice McQueen and her Department, backed by Governor Haslam, insist we simply MUST keep testing.

Why?

Whenever the idea of stopping testing is brought up, the state says we will lose federal money. Even this week, amid legislative wrangling on the issue, the final proposal was adopted as means of preserving compliance with federal law.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reported it:

The language in both bills seeks to keep Tennessee’s school accountability plan in compliance with a federal education law that requires states to include student performance in their teacher evaluation model — or risk losing federal funding for schools. Lawmakers also cited the state’s tenure rules in preserving the data.

So, what’s the real risk?

There isn’t one. If Tennessee stops testing this year and doesn’t include the data at all in teacher evaluation, we’d only be violating the plan we wrote, not some federal mandate. It was Tennessee’s ESSA plan that spelled out how our state planned to use data from testing. Certainly, a case can be made that testing didn’t go as planned this year, so we won’t use this year’s data.

Still, could we lose money?

No.

I mean, it’s not exactly THAT clear, but pretty much.

Here’s what I wrote on this topic back in 2016 (yes, we have testing problems all the time — as one person noted on Twitter, we’ve become the Cleveland Browns of state testing):

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.

And here’s more on how the federal Department of Education rarely withholds funds from states over testing or accountability issues:

  1. In 2015 more than 600,000 students opted out of state tests around the country, including 20% of all students in NYS, and 100,000 students in New Jersey and Colorado. Here in Illinois, more than 40,000 students opted out, including 10% of all CPS students eligible for the test. In 2016, as a district, CPS still did not make 95% participation, and more than 160 individual CPS schools also had <95% participation on PARCC last year. And in New York State in 2016, more than 9 out of 10 school districts had less than 95% participationNo state, district or school lost a single penny—despite threats throughout testing season every year since mass opt out began.  In fact, as mentioned above, no state or local educational agency has lost any funding for participation rates ever. And states have had participation below 95% in the past (particularly in demographic subgroups), even before the era of mass opt out campaigns.
  2. In 2015 the IL State Board of Education (ISBE) opted out the entire state from science testing. States must administer science testing by grade-span (i.e. once in 3-5th, once in 6-8th, once in high school). There was a 0% participation rate. No funding was lost. The US Department of Education (USED)’s response was described by the Chicago Tribune as a ‘crackdown‘. In fact, the ‘crackdown’ was a stern letter, informing the state that they needed to administer a science test the next year.

So, will we lose money because we tried to administer a test but experienced a series of unfortunate events?

No.

No we will not.

Still, the Tennessee Department of Education insists that our students, teachers, and schools persist.

Still, TDOE insists the data is somehow valid and useful.

The fact is, TNReady has not been. Not in 2016, not this year, not yet.

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

Keep the education news and analysis coming!


 

SUSPENDED: A TNReady Story

As the 2018 TNReady saga continues, there are scattered reports today of testing issues.

Testing has been suspended at Collierville High School due to issues with the vendor, Questar. Likewise, problems have been reported in Cookeville.

Various login and submission issues have been reported from some schools in Nashville.

Reports from multiple districts indicate an upgrade to the Nextera testing platform used by Questar wiped out class rosters. Guidance from Questar initially suggested that testing coordinators could manually upload the rosters.

It is not yet clear how much of an impact issues related to the Nextera upgrade have had across the state. Some schools report the rosters eventually reappeared.

UPDATE: Reports at the end of the day of testing issues (login problems, rosters disappearing/reappearing, wrong tests loaded and replaced, submission delays) from Washington County, Knox County, Wilson County, and Williamson County in addition to the problems reported earlier from Cookeville and Collierville.

If you know more about this issue or if your district or school has had testing issues today, please email me at andy@tnedreport.com 

Stay tuned for more on TNReady and testing in Tennessee.

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An Announcement

Covering the ongoing TNReady story has been fascinating and intense. It’s meant constant engagement on Twitter and via other social media and multiple posts and updates each day.

It’s also made me reflect on what is now six consecutive legislative sessions of education policy coverage via this platform.

In addition to updates on legislative action that impacts our schools, students, teachers, and parents, I’ve written extensively on a full range of education issues. I’ve covered the State Board of Education, the Commissioner of Education, and local school boards (especially in larger districts).

This blog has featured guest posts from educators (and I welcome more submissions via andy@tnedreport.com) and from policymakers.

Readers can count on 4-5 posts per week covering timely, relevant education news. On weeks like last week, posts are added and updated frequently. Additionally, in-depth reports are provided on topics like NAEP scores and teacher compensation.

All of this to say: I’ve decided to open a Patreon page as a means of generating some revenue to make this site truly sustainable.

Your support — even a few dollars a month — will ensure TNEdReport continues and grows. With steady funding, I can devote significant time to the site and explore ways to offer more and better content.

If you’d prefer to simply make a one-time contribution, you can do that, too!

Thank you for reading!

 

Third Time’s No Charm

Today was Day Three of statewide testing in Tennessee — TNReady. Let’s just say that the first two days didn’t go so well.

After a serious malfunction on Monday, the state’s testing vendor claimed it was hacked yesterday. So, students around the state were unable to complete scheduled tests.

The hacking allegation raises concerns over privacy, and one parent has had enough.

Now, though, the state is sure things are worked out and Day Three is all set — smooth and problem-free.

In fact, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen testified before a House Committee today and apologized for the two days of problems. She also refused to resign and suggested that because today’s testing was going well, things were back on track. That is, nothing to worry about. She stated she believes the test results can be valid, and can be used in a valid way to evaluate teacher and school performance. Except, even in the best case scenario, that’s wrong.

Here’s the deal: There were scattered reports of issues today, including difficulty logging on and at least five districts requiring some form of tech support. If there had been no other problems this week, that would seem very minor. Taken in context, however, it’s concerning that after these past two days, some districts/schools are still struggling.

I also received one report from a middle Tennessee district that said students in middle grades (5-8) were receiving the wrong grade level tests. While unconfirmed, again, it raises questions in light of earlier challenges this week.

It’s also worth noting that several districts, including two large districts (Williamson, Rutherford) suspended testing for today. That means they weren’t trying to access the system. If the problem the past two days was system overload, a significant reduction in attempts would certainly impact that, possibly allowing the test to go forward today with only minor issues. What will happen tomorrow as those systems join the rest of the state?

Finally, even in systems reporting that the test went smoothly today, here’s what that means at an individual school:

Just a quick update as to where we are on testing and what to expect in the next few days.

We will be on a regular bell schedule both tomorrow and Friday. Due to the number of “Incomplete” tests that did not submit and those that did not get logged on, it has taken a considerable amount of time to get each logged on, trouble shoot and then submit their Writing portion of the test today. We still have close to 97 students to complete tomorrow. Many of these just needed to be recovered and submitted,but this requires time for the administrator to sit with each student and ensure that it does submit successfully.

With that being said, the TDOE has extended the testing window so that we can push back some and get this portion complete prior to moving forward. The Writing portion of the TNReady Test must be submitted prior to being able to move to part 2, 3 and 4 of ELA and has a much earlier required submission date than all of the other tests. We will work tomorrow(Thursday) to get these 97 students caught up and finished and then move ahead to the Math test beginning on Monday as planned. Barring any further disruptions of the testing platform, we will be on our previously announced testing schedule for next week. We will then pick up the remaining ELA testing the following week and will get that information out to you as quickly as we can.

The disruption caused by the testing failures on Monday and Tuesday has far-reaching impact. This message from a principal to parents explains the headache of rearranging schedules and resubmitting the tests.

The bottom line: This year’s online testing may be useful for testing the platform and working out bugs, but it is not a valid indicator of student progress or teacher performance. It certainly shouldn’t be used in any school accountability measures.

Commissioner McQueen seems unfazed by logic, however, and insists we can plow right ahead with these scores and use them to judge teacher performance, and even include them in student grades if a district chooses.

No, the third time wasn’t a charm in Tennessee, no matter what the failed Commissioner says.

 

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Refused

One parent in Knox County has had enough and raises concerns over student privacy issues as the Tennessee Department of Education and Questar allege hacking of the state’s TNReady testing system.

Here’s the letter she sent to Knox County School leaders today:

TNReady has failed again. This time, there is serious concern about the safety of our students’ data.  If Questar has truly been hacked in the last 24 hours, then there is no way they can assure me that my student’s data is safe. To continue testing under these circumstances is irresponsible and possibly open to lawsuits re FERPA violations.

 

Until I can be assured that everything is safe and secure, my son, xxxxxx, simply cannot participate in these tests. Because he is in high school, and because GPA matters, I insist that he be given an opportunity to make up any tests once the above criteria are met.

 

I anticipate a certain amount of push-back on my decision and requirements for make-up.  I realize every one of you, the BOA, the principals, KCS admin, and the TN Legislature are scrambling today to figure out the ramifications and make decisions on future actions. I also see zero accountability or ownership of this problem by TNDOE.  However, since the testing resumes at 1pm for him, and no answers will be forthcoming by that time, I, as his parent, have to make this difficult decision until there is consensus among you.

 

I’m sure there will be no time for individual responses at this late time and on this busy day, however, rest assured, I will fight like a momma bear to make sure this fiasco doesn’t impact my son’s grades.

 

Thank you for your attention and a special thanks to those of you who are working so hard today to make sure we do what is best for our children.

 

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