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


 

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.

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

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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.

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


 

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Moratorium?

Echoing a call made earlier this week by teachers in Shelby County, a group of House Democrats including gubernatorial candidate and Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh, said yesterday the state should place a three year moratorium on using TNReady scores in student grades and teacher evaluations.

The move comes amid the latest round of troubles for the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady.

Jason Gonzales of the Tennessean reports:

The call for a three-year stay on accountability comes after another round of TNReady issues, the state’s standardized assessment. This is the second year in a row that Tennessee House Democrats have called for such a moratorium.

“Right now, as it stands, Tennessee isn’t proficient in getting students assessed,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis. “We encourage you (the Tennessee Department of Education) to put your pride aside … and give TNReady three years to be perfected.”

The group did not call for scrapping the test, and in fact, under their proposal, the test would still be administered. However, by not including the results in student grades or teacher evaluations, problems such as the missed deadlines that impacted report cards at the end of last school year and the missing students that are now impacting teacher TVAAS scores, could be avoided.

Additionally, taking three years to build a reliable base of data would help add to the validity of any accountability measure based on those scores going forward.

It’s not clear if there’s more momentum for a moratorium this year. What is clear is that the House will hold hearings on the latest TNReady problems next week. Those hearings may well indicate what the future holds for Tennessee’s troubled testing system.

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


 

 

Tight Deadline

Trouble with the timeline for returning TNReady quick scores to school districts has lead to some unpleasant exchanges between districts and the Tennessee Department of Education. The latest reporting indicates that more than 75% of districts won’t have scores back in a fashion that allows them to be factored into report cards before the school year ends (which for most districts, is this week).

One question that has been asked is when did districts know there might be a problem?

A pair of emails from Commissioner Candice McQueen to directors of schools indicates it was pretty late in the game.

Here’s one sent on the evening of May 3rd. Here’s the portion of that email dedicated to TNReady and the timeline to return tests so they can be scored and returned to districts:

In order to receive TNReady raw score data back by late May, we need your support in shipping completed testing materials to our vendor in a timely fashion. We know that 75 percent of districts have shipped back some materials, and we need your help in ensuring all completed materials—particularly ELA subpart 1, which will be hand-scored—are returned quickly.

Testing coordinators should send completed subparts to Questar as soon as possible. System and building testing coordinators should follow the guidance they have received from our team as well as Questar. Our goal is to share your raw scores the week of May 22, which would be in time for TNReady results to be included in students’ grades at the 10 percent weighting for this year.

So, it’s May 3rd in the evening. You get this email that night or read it in the office the next day. The testing window ends May 5th. It looks like most districts have returned some materials and that raw scores will be back for most districts the week of May 22nd, plenty of time to use the data for student report cards.

Then, tucked inside the May 10th update (not even the top item) is this important information about deadlines for receipt of TNReady materials:

In order to receive TNReady raw score data back by late May, we need your support in shipping all completed testing materials to our vendor in a timely fashion. Testing coordinators should send completed subparts to Questar as soon as possible. System and building testing coordinators should follow the guidance they have received from our team as well as Questar. We have been working with our vendor to provide raw scores as early as the week of May 22, which would be in time for TNReady results to be included in students’ grades at the reduced 10 percent weighting for this year.

We have worked with Questar to determine the following timeline for when you can expect to have raw scores based on when they receive materials:

Subpart 1 (ELA 3–8, ENG I-III and USH) received by Questar All other test materials received by Questar Anticipated raw score file delivery date
On or before April 28 Wednesday, May 10 Monday, May 22*
April 29–May 5 Friday, May 12 Tuesday, May 30*
May 6–May 19 Friday, May 19 Monday, June 5*

*The raw score file dates are projected based on Questar’s anticipated timeline for scoring and processing.

That’s a pretty tight turnaround. The email I have on this has a time stamp of 8:45 PM — so, most people got this pretty late in the evening or read it on the 11th at the office.

But, reading it on the 11th was pretty useless since the deadline was the 10th. Oh, and getting the email on May 10th in the evening (or even during the day) was also pretty worthless.

Of course, if you acted quickly, you could get everything to Questar by May 12th and get scores back the week of May 30th. Sure, that’s after school’s out, but it would likely only mean a brief delay in report cards. But that would also mean you spent all of May 11th coordinating the logistics of getting scores to Questar the NEXT DAY.

Telling someone about a deadline that has already passed is not helpful.

Also odd is this wording about the three timelines released in response to Clarksville-Montgomery County’s results:

“We provide three different timelines for a reason, and all are equally fine and acceptable for districts to be on. We are neutral on which deadlines districts meet, and it is reasonable that larger districts would need additional time to ship materials back and may use the entire window to do so. We have always fully expected that we will have districts on all three tracks based on their local decisions.” Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns confirmed that with this comment: “We emphasized that there was no “miss” of deadlines. We just provided three timelines.”

On May 3rd, the word from the Department of Education was that most districts were on track and that most districts would have scores back by the week of May 22nd. Then, on May 10th, it turns out May 10th is the deadline for getting scores back the week of May 22nd. Want scores the week of May 30th? Better get them together by May 12th — essentially a one day notice.

So, now we end up with more than 75% of districts NOT getting raw scores back by the end of May.

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


 

 

 

 

Decision Time

I reported last week on the potential fight brewing between Williamson County Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education over End of Course testing this year.

Now, Melanie Balakit at the Tennessean reports that the time for a decision is fast approaching.

From the story:

“There is only one district where administration of high school and end-of-course exams have been suspended,” Chandler Hopper, state department of education spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We are continuing to have discussions with this district and are hopeful that the commissioner’s authority to issue penalties will not be necessary.”

It is not clear what, if any, penalties would be issued from the Commissioner. The Department of Education did threaten to withhold BEP funds from districts who refused to administer Phase II of TNReady prior to the events that led to the cancellation of that portion of the test.

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