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.

 

 

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


 

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

 

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

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.


 

Is John Oliver Reading TN Ed Report?

John Oliver recently took on the issue of standardized testing and it sounds like he’s been reading Tennessee Education Report. In 18 brilliant minutes, he hits on a number of topics covered here time and again.

Oliver discussed teacher merit pay, the recruiting tactics of testing companies, value-added assessment, and testing transparency.

Back in 2013, Tennessee’s State Board of Education moved toward merit pay based on value-added data.

This year, while adding nearly $100 million to the pot for teacher compensation, Governor Haslam continued a push for merit pay.

While Oliver noted that Pearson recruits test scorers on Craigslist, Tennessee’s new testing vendor, Measurement, Inc. uses the same practice.

And of course, there’s the issue of value-added assessment — in Tennessee, called TVAAS. While it yields some interesting information, it’s not a reliable predictor of teacher performance and it’s going to be even more unreliable going forward, due to the shift from TCAP to TNReady. Here’s what we’ve learned from TVAAS in Tennessee:

In fact, this analysis demonstrates that the difference between a value-added identified “great” teacher and a value-added identified “average” teacher is about $300 in earnings per year per student.  So, not that much at all.  Statistically speaking, we’d call that insignificant.  That’s not to say that teachers don’t impact students.  It IS to say that TVAAS data tells us very little about HOW teachers impact students.

Surprisingly, Tennessee has spent roughly $326 million on TVAAS and attendant assessment over the past 20 years. That’s $16 million a year on a system that is not yielding much useful information.

And then there’s testing transparency. Oliver points out that it’s difficult if not impossible to get access to the actual test questions. In fact, Tennessee’s testing vendor, Measurement, Inc., has a contract with Utah’s testing vendor that involves a fine if test questions are revealed — $5000 per question:

The contract further notes that any release of the questions either by accident or as required by law, will result in a fee of $5000 per test item released. That means if Tennessee wants to release a bank of questions generated from the Utah test and used for Tennessee’s assessment, the state would pay $5000 per question.

Here’s the clip from John Oliver:

 

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

 

TNReady … Already?

Back in November, the State of Tennessee awarded a contract to Measurement Inc. to develop the new assessment that would replace TCAP.

This assessment is to be aligned to state standards (largely based on Common Core State Standards) and should take into account feedback from Tennesseans.

Measurement Inc. will be paid $108 million for the contract.

Chalkbeat noted at the time the contract was awarded:

Measurement Inc. is subcontracting to AIR, a much larger player in the country’s testing market. AIR already has contracts with Utah and Florida, so Tennessee educators will be able to compare scores of Tennessee students with students from those states “with certainty and immediately.” AIR is also working with Smarter Balanced, one of two federally funded consortia charged with developing Common Core-aligned exams. That means that educators in Tennessee will also likely be able to measure their students’ progress with students in the 16 states in the Smarter Balanced Consortium.

The Department of Education notes on its website:

Comparability: While the assessments will be unique to Tennessee, TNReady will allow Tennesseans to compare our student progress to that of other states. Through a partnership between Measurement Inc. and American Institutes for Research, TNReady will offer Tennessee a comparison of student performance with other states, likely to include Florida and Utah.

While Measurement Inc. has an interesting approach to recruiting test graders, another item about the contract is also noteworthy.

The Department and Chalkbeat both noted the ability to compare Tennessee test scores with other states, including Utah and Florida.

Here’s why that’s possible. On December 5th, the Utah Board of Education approved the use of revenue from test licensing agreements with Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee based on contracts with AIR, the organization with which Measurement Inc. has a contract, as noted by Chalkbeat.

The contract notes that Utah’s expected arrangement in Tennessee is worth $2.3 million per year (running from 2015-2017) and that Tennessee will use questions licensed for the Utah assessment in Math and ELA in its 2015-16 assessment.

So, Tennessee’s new test will use questions developed for Utah’s assessment and also licensed to Florida and Arizona.

The contract further notes that any release of the questions either by accident or as required by law, will result in a fee of $5000 per test item released. That means if Tennessee wants to release a bank of questions generated from the Utah test and used for Tennessee’s assessment, the state would pay $5000 per question.

While Tennessee has said it may change or adapt the test going forward, it seems that the 2016 edition of the test may be well underway in terms of its development.

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