What Is Normal?

It’s probably difficult to imagine a normal testing environment given the trouble Tennessee has had this year and in 2016. However, an administrator at a middle school offers some insight into what a “normal” testing schedule looks like:

The schedule includes seven different testing sessions to accommodate the eleven subtests required of middle school students.

With an average time on test of 45 minutes per subtest and an additional 40 minutes for ELA part 1, students are spending 8 hours and 55 minutes online.

Seven testing sessions means seven class transitions to the computer lab at five minutes each, plus at least five minutes to log on and go through directions. That is an additional hour and ten minutes lost teaching time.

So, in total middle school students are spending ten hours and five minutes on an online test that the state now says won’t count.  The school day is seven hours. Therefore, the state has robbed students of a day and a half of potential learning in the name of “testing what they know.”

This is what happens under “normal” circumstances. Of course, now there are the added factors of testing delays, suspension of test administration, and extended testing windows.

How long will the state continue a system that robs students of a day and a half of learning?

 

A couple of interesting comments:

Considering that many schools are only giving one subtest per day…some shools are taking nearly two and a half weeks to complete assessments. Also, if you take into account that a school day (7 hours in most places now) has other things like lunch, related arts, and class changes…instruction time is really in the five hour range. So, at minimum the assessment is taking two complete days of instruction. But even that is not the story. Where I live students in middle school are taking eight days over a three week period(T, W, TR) to complete assessments. Again, one subpart at a time. Due to the amount of time that it takes to set-up the lab or ready paper materials(counting every single item in the test admin room as it leaves, distributing in the classroom, counting every test item as it leaves the classroom, and then counting it again as it reaches the test admin office)…the process is much, much longer. Items that must be counted are state issued rulers, calculators, answer sheets, test booklets, scrap paper. It takes forever. Most schools begin w TNReady to start the day. So, basically it is like running school on a two hour delay snow day. Anyone know how much work gets done on snow delay days or early dismissals? Not much. Sorry for the long post. Now ask teachers how much time is spent on benchmarking and quarterly assessments, basically now testing to prepare for the test. I am willing to suggest that the number of days(not actual hours….just days where the instructional environment is disrupted) where teachers are having to give district, state, and federal assessments(think NAEP) is roughly 25-30 days per school year. Over 12 years, that is 360 days or roughly two years of a child’s instructional time from grades 1-12 where a local/state/federal assessment disrupts some portion of a student’s day. Now imagine how much more our children would learn if we got back all of that time accrued over 12 years that was lost to assessments.

AND:

At the high school where I work, we have testing the in AM and PM spread out over THREE WEEKS. That’s 3 weeks of altered daily schedules, 3 weeks of some but not all students missing a class because of testing, 3 weeks of students coming to my class surprised that we are actually doing work that day (because they are equating test taking time as a time for rest in all classes)(I can’t say I really blame them), and 3 weeks of students wondering when it will be over. Three weeks of this energy-sapping, soul sucking testing nonsense that doesn’t count for anything. Try making teenagers take it seriously. It’s a joke and they know it.

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A TNReady Letter

An educator in Campbell County sent this letter to legislators about Tennessee’s TNReady trouble:

I am an educator. My husband is an educator as well. We have each been teaching for 17 years and hold master’s degrees in our fields. We are also both history teachers who uphold democratic principles and stress the importance of fulfilling our civic duty.

I am contacting you regarding the issues educators and students are dealing with when it comes to testing and the education system in general. First and foremost, why are we expected to give our kids a standardized test when our students are not standardized kids? We differentiate our instruction every day, we change and adapt to our students needs, we support and scaffold and encourage, but these tests leave no room for that.

As the only social studies teacher in my school at my grade level, I see 165 students a day. I get them for 45 minutes. I teach from the highest high to the lowest low sometimes in the same class period. I have students reading at a 12th grade level with students who literally can spell 2 words due to cognitive delays, yet every kid takes the same test. They may have accommodations such as read aloud or extended time, but someone who is functioning on a third grade level really shouldn’t be expected to take an 8th grade test. That makes that student feel like a failure. No kid should feel like a failure.

I understand the need for assessment, but it should only be used as a measurement tool to gauge growth of the individual students. It should never be used as a weapon to punish the child or the teacher. I don’t like the term accountability because it turns into blame. I promise you that on any given day, you can come into my class and my students are engaged in high order thought processes. We have deep intense discussions about the subject matter, we hold round table talks as historical figures, we participate in congressional hearings where a guest panel fires questions at them, we have simulations, we have csi cases, we examine historical evidence to make a determination, we really dig into history. I teach my butt off. Every day. I love what I do and I am passionate about it, but I am also frustrated because what if I didn’t cover tested material and I look ineffective on paper.

This brings me to my next point. The standards are impossible to truly teach in the timeframe. I don’t believe education comes from doing vocabulary or listening to a teacher lecture. I think true understanding comes from discovery and having the time to explore the topics. In 8th grade, I am responsible for 98 separate standards. There will be a few less in 2020, but right now I have 98 separate standards. Some of those standards only cover one subtopic, but those are few and far between. I put a standard on the board today that included 18 different subtopics. I have counted my subtopics. There are 582 of them. 582 new terms and phrases and concepts. It is impossible to teach all of those well. So I focus on what is most important: Settlement, slavery, conflict, government, native Americans, foreign relations. I would like to invite any legislators to come into our school and sit in our classes and take the 8th grade test that our students, our 13-14 year old children are expected to take. It would prove to be very difficult.

These standards are not age appropriate. I understand why legislators have latched onto the word rigor. It sounds like something is being done. The only thing that has happened is we are setting these kids up for failure. We have jumped on board with this terminology and thrown out the buzzwords, but everyone has lost their common sense. We need to ask ourselves, does an 8th grader, 7th, 6th…etc. really need to know this? Why would someone besides a historian need this? Where are the geography and map reading skills? Why are we trying to push these kids beyond what they are capable of understanding at their age? It’s insanity and it is getting worse with every new change.

The testing debacle has been at the forefront the past few days. TN ready has consistently proven to be not ready. Every year a plague of problems hits the news circuit concerning the system. Why don’t we just let it go? Too much of our tax money has gone into this program. If you ask educators, most will tell you these tests do not accurately measure student growth or achievement. There are too many variables. Why can’t we change the testing structure? It would make sense to test our students on all grade level skills upon entrance in the fall to gain a baseline, test again in the winter to determine growth, and test a final time the last week of school to see what the student did that year. The standards and the tests should be created by current educators. No one knows better than the teachers how to help the students.

Teachers are not lazy. We spend years becoming experts in our fields. We plan lessons, spend money, give our time for free, worry and counsel these kids to make sure they make it. For the majority of us, this isn’t an 8-3 job. From August 1st until June 1st, we are 100% devoted to our schools and our students. Many of us do extra training in the summer to stay current. When we voice concerns, it isn’t because we want our jobs to be easier. It’s because the system is broken, and more times than not we are treated like the villain. We just want professional courtesy.

Please vote to keep tests from counting against our teachers and our students. But do even better. Try to find a solution so our students get the quality of education they deserve. Think what could happen if we funneled some of the millions away from testing and test prep, and sent it directly into the classes. We could hire more teachers and get rid of overcrowding, we could finance field trips so the kids could experience things first hand, we could have materials for science experiments for every kid. Learning could be something kids looked forward to again. It would not be drill and kill test prep.

I get passionate about this subject. Our kids are too important to not get passionate about. I truly want education to be better. I want to see big changes. Get out and talk to teachers. Talk to students. Talk to parents.

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Not So Harmless

After a fourth day of TNReady trouble, the Tennessee General Assembly took action today to make changes to how the test impacts schools, students, and teachers.

While some are billing the report of a joint committee of the House and Senate as a “hold harmless” for schools, students, and teachers, that’s not entirely accurate.

Also, the legislature stopped short of putting a stop to TNReady entirely, claiming federal law “requires” them to test students.

Here’s the deal: Federal law does say that districts should administer tests to at least 95% of students and that states should test all students in reading and math from grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, with a suggestion for additional high school testing as appropriate.

BUT: Is there really a penalty for districts (or states) where the testing threshold falls below 95%?

As I reported in 2016, the last time we had a major failure of online testing in Tennessee:

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.

In other words, the likelihood of a single Tennessee district losing funds due to stopping a test that isn’t working is very close to zero. Tennessee is not having problems due to opt-outs or a low number of students being tested. Kids in districts across the state are showing up for a test that is not happening. Districts are doing everything right and a vendor and the Tennessee Department of Education are failing to serve students. Unless TNDOE is going to fine districts, there is truly no risk of funds being lost.

Now, about the “hold harmless” law (pictured below):

  1. The law does say that districts and schools will not receive an “A-F” score based on the results of this year’s test. It also says schools can’t be placed on the state’s priority list based on the scores. That’s good news.
  2. The law gives districts the option of not counting this year’s scores in student grades. Some districts had already said they wouldn’t count the test due to the likelihood the scores would arrive late. Now, all districts can take this action if they choose.
  3. The law says any score generated for teachers based on this year’s test cannot be used in employment/compensation decisions.

Here’s what the law didn’t say: There will be NO TVAAS scores for teachers this year based on this data.

Commissioner McQueen said yesterday that the data from these tests will be used to generate a TVAAS score and it will count for 20% of a teacher’s evaluation. This law does NOT change that. It just says if you get a low score based on this number, you can’t be fired or denied compensation.

Below is an excerpt from current law (taken from TCA 49-1-302, the section governing teacher evaluation):

(E)  For teachers with access to individual data representative of student growth as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii), the following provisions shall apply:

  • (i)  In the 2016-2017 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 school year shall account for ten percent (10%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (ii)  In the 2017-2018 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years shall account for twenty percent (20%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (iii)  In the 2018-2019 school year and thereafter, the student growth component of the evaluation criteria shall be determined under subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii);
  • (iv)  The most recent year’s student growth evaluation composite shall account for the full thirty-five percent (35%) of growth data required in a teacher’s evaluation if such use results in a higher evaluation score;
  • (v)  For the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 school years, student growth evaluation composites generated by assessments administered in the 2015-2016 school year shall be excluded from the student growth measure as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) if such exclusion results in a higher evaluation score for the teacher or principal. The qualitative portion of the evaluation shall be increased to account for any necessary reduction to the student growth measure.

Here’s what this means: If the current tests give you a “good” evaluation score, it will count for 35% of your total evaluation. If the score is not “good,” it only counts for 20% this year. The legislation adopted today by way of the Conference Committee does NOT change that.

In other words, the test data from the 2017-18 administration of TNReady WILL count in a teacher’s evaluation.

Here’s why that matters: An educator’s evaluation score factors into the number of observations they have each year as well as Professional Development Points (PDPs). PDPs are needed for license advancement or renewal.

The Department of Education addresses PDPs and notes:

Overall level of effectiveness rating (approved TN model) Overall Score of 5 = 20 PDPs
Overall Score of 4 = 15 PDPs

Overall Score of 3 = 10 PDPs

Information is maintained by the department. No additional documentation is required; points may be accrued annually.

Even if this year’s scores only end up counting 20%, that’s enough to change a teacher’s overall TEAM rating by a level. A TEAM score below a three means no PDPs, for example. The overall TEAM score also impacts the number of observations a teacher has in a year — which also places an additional burden on administrators.

Also, districts now have to meet to decide how to handle the tests and student grades. For some, that decision has already been made. For others, this will require a meeting in pretty short order to let students, parents, and teachers know what’s happening.

Here’s the language of the conference committee report:

 

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We Paid $60 Million for That?

Guess what? Tennessee taxpayers are on the hook for some $60 million to testing vendor Questar for new TNReady tests.

Guess what else? Those tests aren’t exactly helpful.

At least that’s the word from the education professionals in classrooms.

The Tennessean reports this year’s survey of Tennessee teachers indicates:

Sixty-five percent of educators surveyed said standardized exams aren’t worth the investment of time and effort. The same percentage of teachers said the exams don’t help refine teaching practices.

And 60 percent said the test doesn’t help them understand whether students gain the knowledge necessary to meet state standards.

In response, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen notes:

And teachers haven’t yet recieved meaningful data from the change to TNReady to help guide instruction due to the transition, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. The state has and will continue to work to improve the usefulness of the test, she said.

Except the attitude about the previous tests wasn’t much better:

The attitudes toward testing also aren’t necessarily new.

In the 2015 survey, educators said testing was a burden, with teachers reporting they spent too much time preparing students for exams and taking tests.

Now, though, our students spend even more time testing and preparing for tests. Tests that educators don’t find useful. In fact, Chalkbeat notes:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

Why isn’t the testing useful? For one, the results don’t come back in time. Even with the switch to a new testing vendor this year following the debacle of the first year of TNReady, quick score results weren’t back very quickly and final results will be delivered later this year.

It’s worth noting, though, that even before the transition to TNReady, teachers found the testing regime burdensome and unhelpful. It’s almost like the state is surveying teachers but not actually paying attention to the results.

Why are educators frustrated, exactly? Teacher Mike Stein offers this:

Meanwhile, teachers’ performance bonuses and even their jobs are on the line. Though they wouldn’t assert themselves into the discussion, principals and directors of schools also rely heavily upon the state to administer a test that measures what it says it will measure and to provide timely results that can be acted upon. As long as both of these things remain in question, I must question both the importance of TNReady and the competence of those who insist upon any standardized test as a means of determining whether or not educators are doing their jobs.

Taxpayers are spending money on a test that day-to-day practitioners find unhelpful. In the case of evaluations, they also find it unfair. Because, well, it’s just not a valid indicator of teacher performance.

Perhaps state policymakers should take a closer look at the teacher survey results. Teachers have no problem being evaluated, and in fact, most say the current system provides them with useful feedback. The observation rubric is robust and with proper implementation and meaningful building-level support, can be helpful as a means of improving teaching practice.

What’s not especially helpful is a test that takes up significant instructional time and doesn’t yield information in a timely or useful manner.

Taking a step back and removing the high stakes associated with a single test could be an important first step toward right-sizing our state’s approach to student assessment.

 

 

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Still Too Much Testing

That’s the word from Maryville’s Director of Schools Mike Winstead.

Winstead, a member of Commissioner Candice McQueen’s assessment task force, told the group he believed reductions in testing time going into effect this year still create a climate of over-testing.

Winstead made his remarks during a recent meeting of the task force, according to a report by Grace Tatter.

Here’s what Winstead had to say about the current climate of testing in Tennessee:

“When we look at the states we’re chasing and trying to catch on NAEP and move up the ladder, I’d guess there’s none that test as much as (Tennessee does),” he said. “More tests are not going to help us catch them.”

Winstead said time spent testing has increased dramatically over the last five years, and this year’s reductions just bring the state back to a previous level of over-testing, rather than solving the problem.

It’s interesting that Winstead’s remarks suggest he believes we were testing too much even before implementation of Race to the Top and the Common Core/TNReady transition.

Winstead also has a point. While Tennessee had a good showing on NAEP in 2013, the 2015 results suggest that may have been an anomaly.

When the 2015 NAEP results were released, I compared them to 2013’s results and noted:

Note here that what I suggested then [2013] was an expected result (big gain, followed by holding steady) is exactly what happened in Tennessee this year [2015]. That’s good news — it means we’re not declining. But it also means we can’t really say that 2013 was something special. As I noted last year, Kentucky had a series of big gains in the 1990s and then again in the early 2000s. It wasn’t just a big bump one time. So far, Tennessee has had one banner year (2013) and this year, returned to normal performance.

This gets to Winstead’s point. Does an emphasis on testing make us more competitive with other states? Probably not. The NAEP is administered every other year to a random sample of students. It’s the gold standard in terms of scientific data on student performance. Recent results in Tennessee suggest a move in the right direction and an especially nice bump in 2013. But our results are not unique to states that test as much as we do. And we still trail states that place less emphasis on testing.

I’m going to go a step further than what Winstead explicitly said and surmise that he’d suggest we further reduce testing and focus more time on teaching and learning based on our state’s new, higher standards.

Some policymakers would suggest that won’t give us enough data — but we get reliable data every two years from the NAEP. I understand the desire to test all students every year, and federal policy requires this in some form from grades 3-12. But the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also gives us an opportunity to propose innovative strategies and request a waiver from some requirements.

Tennessee should take advantage of the opportunity provided by ESSA and the current state climate around testing, including the task force, and pursue a new strategy that focuses on student learning rather than student testing.

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


 

 

One Step Further

On the heels of the announcement from the Tennessee Department of Education that TNReady testing was being suspended for grades 3-8, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney went one step further and suspended end of course testing for high school students in his district.

Here’s the email he sent yesterday:

You are an incredible group of professionals and I am exceedingly proud of your work. This year has been full of surprises and uncertainty as it relates to state assessment and yet you still have prepared students for success. Your work is important and matters. I am proud of you.

Unfortunately, sometimes events happen outside of our direct control. Today the Commissioner of Education announced the suspension of Part II of the TnReady/TCAP Assessment in grades 3-8.

In addition, because of my continued concerns, I am suspending End of Course tests at the high school level.

I truly believe in the importance of measuring student progress. It is, from my perspective, a critical piece of our work. And I look forward to us being able to appropriately assess students as soon as possible.

Mike Looney

 

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Seriously?

Will TNReady testing resume this year? For some students, maybe not.

The President of Measurement, Inc. said yesterday that there was no guarantee his company would make the testing window.

The Memphis Daily News reports:

The president of a North Carolina-based testing company said Monday that he can’t guarantee all students in Tennessee will receive the test on time.

Measurement Inc. president and CEO Henry “Hank” Scherich said his company is working furiously to get the new TNReady materials to students.

“I wish I could promise them,” Scherich said. He added they were doing everything humanly possible to get the tests to the students on time.

All of the students have at least some of the testing materials, he said, but the company has found itself scrambling to print and ship 5 million test booklets for Tennessee.

This follows last week’s  that a Friday deadline would be missed.

That event caused some lawmakers to call for this year’s testing to be cancelled. The Department of Education has still not agreed to that solution.

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

 

 

Stewart on Opting-Out

Nashville State Representative Mike Stewart talks about the decision he and his wife made to refuse standardized testing for their daughter this year.

He told Nashville Public Radio:

Parents are rallying in other parts of the state as well, and Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, is among them. He and his wife decided to opt out their daughter after speaking out against it themselves.

Stewart says, “We just felt like, we’re telling people these tests are so wrong. We should step up and opt out. We should live with our convictions.”

Stewart also noted:

“Testing has it’s place [but] it has gotten completely out of control to where the tests are driving what is going on in the classroom year round.”

As far as keeping up with how many students opt-out, WPLN reports:

School districts are not required to keep track of opt-out numbers because the state doesn’t officially recognize it as an option for students. Blank answer sheets are simply referred to as “irregularities.”

What do you think? Are you a parent “opting-out” or refusing testing this year? Are you a teacher who thinks TNReady’s rollout has caused too much stress? Should districts refuse to administer TNReady Phase II as was discussed by the Murfreesboro School Board?

Let us know!

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

 

Ready to Score

An elementary principal in Sumner County puts TNReady in perspective:

I hope our students grow into adults who don’t remember their TNReady scores. But I sincerely hope these same students see a relationship between hard work and performance, a correlation clearly revealed through standardized tests like TNReady. I hope our students remember we loved and supported them unconditionally, regardless of test performance. We want to celebrate students’ academic “wins” and help them grow through what might feel like intellectual “losses.” Keep in mind, we sacrifice the opportunity to accomplish either if we don’t play the TNReady game, or at least some sort of similar game.

Read more about why this leader thinks TNReady is important and also about the context of this and other state tests.

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

 

In Defense of Standardized Testing

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe discusses how standardized testing is not the enemy. The two professors who wrote the piece made some really great points that I wanted to share with everyone, especially teachers. I am going to break down each section of the op-ed, but please read through the whole article.

The testing effect

The act of testing students will allow them to retain more information.

The testing effect is the idea that trying to remember something leads to greater learning than just re-reading information. In one famous experiment, participants tried to learn information from a textbook either by repeatedly re-reading, or repeatedly writing out everything they could remember after reading the information only once. The strategy of writing from memory led to 60 percent correct recall of the material one week later, compared to only 40 percent in the repeated reading condition.

But despite its effectiveness as a learning strategy, the testing effect had to be rebranded to the less scary/more fun-sounding “quizzing” and we have had to come up with more and more subtle ways to produce the effect without students realizing that they are being tested — somewhat akin to hiding broccoli in brownies.

 

Testing anxiety

Testing anxiety is talked about a lot when discussing standardized testing. Having more tests, which would be lower stakes, may make students less anxious about taking these tests. Additionally, the professors noted that informing the students that the anxiety they feel will be helpful on the test will ease the student’s concern.

Researchers have found one promising method in which students are told that the anxiety they feel before a test is actually helpful – not harmful – to their test performance.

Could teachers and parents be the problem with test anxiety? I hope someone will research this soon.

Finally – and this is something that ought to be examined empirically – the negative views of testing repeated by teachers and parents may be feeding into kids’ anxiety and test-aversion. Just like public speaking, tests are an aspect of education that kids tend not to like even though it’s good for them. Our job as parents is to realize that the benefits of testing outweigh the inconvenience of dealing with kids’ complaints.

Teaching to the test

This section talks about how many teachers feel they are preparing for a test that is made by outside forces that do not have any classroom experience.

 This may be based on the myth that “teachers in the trenches” are being told what to teach by some “experts” who’ve probably never set foot in a “real” classroom. What these defiant teachers fail to realize – or simply choose to ignore – is that these experts are groups of carefully selected individuals that always include well-seasoned “real classroom teachers”, who guide the decision-making on what material should be assessed by the tests.

Standardized tests are biased

I hear this one a lot from teachers. If you think a test that is carefully crafted by teachers and researchers is biased, your own teacher assessments are much more biased.

Standardized tests are not the great equalizer that will eliminate discrimination. But it is highly unlikely an individual teacher alone could create a more fair, unbiased test than many experts with access to a lot of resources, a huge amount of diverse data, and the ability to refine tests based on those data.

The lack of prompt feedback

The lack of prompt feedback is always on teacher’s minds. It usually takes a long time to get feedback from these assessments, and we need to find a better way to receive prompt feedback on these assessments. With the rise in computer assessments, I hope we will be able to get feedback very quickly in the coming years.

In the absence of direct measures of learning, we resort to measures of performance. And the great thing is: measuring this learning actually causes it to grow. So let’s reclaim the word testing, so that the first word that comes to mind when we see it is “effect”.

I am so glad that I stumbled across this op-ed. I hope you will read the rest of the op-ed.