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.

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:

 

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


 

BREAKING: TNReady Day 4 – DOWN

In a developing story, at least eleven school systems across Tennessee are reporting problems with TNReady testing today. The problems include difficulty logging on and errors when attempting to submit completed tests.

While individual schools in some of these districts have been able to complete tests, most of the districts report widespread problems. The problems include several large districts, including Knox County, Davidson County, Rutherford County, and Sumner County.

The testing day was reportedly relatively smooth yesterday, when a number of large systems did not take the test.

More as this continuing saga unfolds.

UPDATE: 12:41 PM

Tennessee House of Representatives votes to delay budget vote until there is action on TNReady. Some are calling for the suspension of the test this year.

UPDATE: 1:03 PM  State says issue is “resolved”

The state of Tennessee plans to push ahead with testing, despite significant problems for students on three of the four days of statewide administration. The state says the current issue is “resolved” and that things are back to normal.

Here’s what “normal” looks like when you have these kind of delays.

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


 

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


 

TEA on TNReady

The Tennessee Education Association has a statement out on the TNReady debacle:

TEA and its members are extremely disappointed with the failures and delays of the state online assessment system, TNReady. TEA is calling for a full and accurate accounting of the problems and how they affect students, along with proof that the system is secure and fair to Tennessee’s parents and teachers. The association is calling on lawmakers to hold students, teachers and schools harmless in light of the failures and growing concerns of the state testing system.

TEA is pleased the House and Senate are holding an immediate hearing on the testing issue.

“Students and teachers across the state are told these are high-stakes tests. Teachers’ jobs are on the line, students’ futures are on the line,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “That is the environment put upon every parent, every child, and every educator with TNReady. Now the test has been offline for two days, damaging the integrity of Tennessee testing.”

In some districts, students were able to log in, but the system would not allow them to submit finished exams. Some students were disrupted mid-exam. The State Department of Education has indicated completed work was saved on the local device students were using, but teachers and administrators must remember and document which student used which computer. It is unclear how much student assessment work was saved or lost during the failure of the online system over the past two days.

“Student morale is a key component of how well a student does on a test. Losing work, being disrupted mid-exam, and constant delays affect students negatively. We are concerned this will impact scores to the detriment of students, teachers and schools,” Gray said. “We are approaching a point where the entire testing system is becoming questionable. Students who start and stop exams may suffer emotionally or become distrustful, which may hurt concentration.”

Parents’ concerns are also growing. While the state says there is no evidence that student data or information has been compromised when the vendor said their system was hacked, there have been no guarantees the testing program protected student information.

“Many teachers are also parents, and when we hear the online testing system has been deliberately hacked, we fear for our children’s personal information,” Gray said.

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


 

TNReady Groundhog Day

It’s Day Two of statewide TNReady testing and despite reassurances following yesterday’s disaster, districts across the state are reporting problems and suspending testing.

Nashvillle, Williamson County, Wilson County, Rutherford County, Sumner County, and Chester County have all reported problems. Students are having difficulty logging on in some cases and in others, students complete an entire test but are unable to submit.

Yesterday, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen said:

“We understand many of you suspended testing today, and we apologize for the unanticipated scheduling changes this issue may have caused,” she said in an email dispatched to district administrators. “…We feel good going into testing tomorrow.”

No, you don’t understand. No, you’re not sorry. This keeps happening. Year after year. Kids went to school yesterday ready to “test like a champion,” and then, nothing happened.

Kids went back today ready to “try again,” and nothing happened.

Word is, Commissioner McQueen is conferencing with districts now. Unless she’s saying we are going to end testing this year and that she’s resigning, I’m not sure how comforting her words can be.

Here’s a tip for Directors of Schools: Don’t believe what she tells you. There’s a clear and disastrous track record when it comes to McQueen and testing.

UPDATE: 10:32 AM

The Department of Education reports the issue is statewide and has issued this statement:

 

UPDATE: Haywood County Director calls on state to immediately suspend all TNReady testing this year>

has suspended testing AGAIN! We need our leadership to step up & suspend testing statewide. It is a statewide issue. Schools, teachers, & students will all be evaluated based on state assessment. Press pause , please!

UPDATE: 3:05 PM Arlington Schools “concerned”

As many of you are aware, TNReady online testing has been severely impacted across the state. The state required grades 9-12 to test online while it remained optional for grades 5-8. We opted out of online testing where available, therefore, grades 2-8 have not been impacted.

With this being the inaugural year of online testing for all high schools, we anticipated the potential for difficulties in the statewide implementation, so we did not schedule online tests to begin until Wednesday for safe measure.

At the time of this release, the Tennessee Department of Education has resumed all testing. We are scheduled to begin online testing at the high school tomorrow and are continuing to get updates from the TDOE. We will proceed according to those updates.

However, we are deeply concerned what impact this may have on our teachers and students and are currently monitoring that impact with other districts across the state.

We’ll update you as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 3:09 PM – Williamson County Suspends Until Thursday

Only third and fourth grade students taking the paper TNReady tests will continue testing Wednesday. All online testing has been postponed. A decision regarding online testing will be made Wednesday afternoon. WCS hopes to resume online testing on Thursday.

UPDATE: 3:15 PM — TNDOE Says Everything Will be OK Tomorrow:

UPDATE: Lamberth legislation – 

Today I filed an amendment to end computerized testing in Tennessee and return to paper tests. For four years this system has failed our hard working students, teachers and parents and I’m finished with it. The amendment will be heard this afternoon on the House floor. — State Rep. William Lamberth of Sumner County

Stay tuned as more develops with this story.

Understatement

Today was to be the first day of the second attempt at large scale statewide online testing (TNReady) after the first attempt failed miserably two years ago.

Despite assurances from the Department of Education and new testing vendor (with a $100 million+ contract) Questar, the morning did NOT go smoothly.

Now, however, the TNDOE suggests everything is fine and tomorrow will be better.

Chalkbeat reports:

By the end of the school day, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was looking ahead to the next day.

“We understand many of you suspended testing today, and we apologize for the unanticipated scheduling changes this issue may have caused,” she said in an email dispatched to district administrators. “…We feel good going into testing tomorrow.”

But the opening-day episode renewed mass frustration in a state that is no stranger to online testing glitches. Two years ago, technical snafus derailed a wholesale switch to testing on digital devices, prompting McQueen to fire the state’s testing company and cancel TNReady for grades 3-8.

Frustration is an understatement. We’ve had four consecutive years with some TNReady problem. This marks year five. I wrote in October:

Let’s start from the beginning. Which was supposed to be 2016. Except it didn’t happen. And then it kept not happening. For full disclosure, I have a child who was in 4th grade at the time of what was to be the inaugural year of TNReady. The frustration of watching her prepare for a week of testing only to be told it would happen later and then later and then maybe never was infuriating. That adults at decision-making levels think it is just fine to treat students that way is telling. It also says something that when some adults try to stand up for their students, they are smacked down by our Commissioner of Education.

My daughter is now in 6th grade. Here we go again. She expressed some mild test anxiety over the weekend and was not exactly excited about TNReady today. Nothing to be worried about, though, unless there’s some problem with the test again.

BAM! Today starts and there’s a testing problem and the school day and overall testing schedule gets rearranged.

Here’s the good news: In math, my daughter did a hands-on project to better understand and demonstrate geometry concepts. When she went to science, the class worked in groups to create a board game.

She was excited to tell me about the work she’d done when I picked her up today. Excited! Parents of a child who is almost 12 can relate: When you pick up your kid and they are fired up (in a good way) about what happened at school, that’s huge.

My question: Why can’t she spend the rest of this week doing hands-on projects to demonstrate what she’s learned this year? Some form of project-based assessment would be far superior to the annual headache that TNReady has become.

Instead, the state says it’s all fine and things will resume as normal later in the week.

I’m sorry, but normal the last five years has been nothing short of a disaster.

It’s time for something new. The apologies and reassurances only work for so long. Will my child complete her Tennessee public school education experience with a successfully administered TNReady test that includes returning results in a timely fashion? The track record suggests the answer is NO.

So, kids out there, get ready to go back to the testing this week. Adults in our state think this is what’s best for you. Or, for them. Or, they just can’t admit they were wrong.

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


 

BREAKING: TNReady NOT Ready…AGAIN (UPDATE)

Reports from school districts across Tennessee indicate that the state’s online TNReady platform is failing. This despite promises from the Tennessee Department of Education that all would go smoothly this week.

Update: 11:18 — Message from the TN Department of Education:

We share the frustration that earlier today some students had issues logging into Nextera to take TNReady. This issue has been resolved, and more than 25,000 students have now successfully completed TNReady exams. Testing has resumed across the state and thousands of students are on the platform now without any challenges. No server has crashed, and this issue was not due to volume. Our partners at Questar have worked quickly to resolve the issue.

UPDATE: 11:57 AM — Message from a middle Tennessee school principal:

Teachers and staff I know it is difficult to accept another apparent fiasco with school wide testing. I appreciate your patience but I do understand the frustration with the testing platform. We will discontinue standardized testing until we can get confirmation that the testing platform is operational without mishaps for students trying to take the EOC assessments. My understanding is the problem lies with the vendor, Quesstar  and not with MNPS IT connectivity or bandwidth. The school will turn in submit an irregularity form for the entire English I subpart I. I do not have an answer on the remaining subparts of English I EOC. I will keep you informed as new information is relayed for the office of research and accountability. Please keep the EOC packet that you received last week, modifications to the testing schedule will be made as soon as guidance from the central office is made available.

And a note from a high school teacher:

I teach 10th grade English, and even though I’ve told my students we’ve been assured by the state of TN that this year’s tests will work they log on, they are skeptical. And now on our first day of testing – our 9th graders attempted to take the writing portion of the English test today – many of our students weren’t successful. So my 10th graders, who are supposed to test tomorrow, are wondering what the point is. They don’t have any faith in the system.

UPDATE 12:34 PM: Wilson County Schools suspended testing in grades 6-12 today and there’s this statement from Williamson County:

Williamson County Schools 12:25 email:

“The Tennessee Department of Education experienced some difficulties across the State with online TNReady grades 5-11 testing that began today. WCS students who were able to access the system completed the test, but most could not access their tests. At this point, we have not yet received an explanation as to why some students could access the system while others could not. WCS will attempt to test again tomorrow. Third and fourth graders took TNReady on paper and were not affected.

Carol Birdsong
Communications Director”

UPDATE: 4:02 PM — Coffee County resumed testing after lunch with no problems.

UPDATE: 4:15 PM — Cheatham County Schools: TNReady testing kicked off today. There were some glitches this morning with the state testing platform. The state corrected the issues & we were able to test successfully this afternoon. The district anticipates that all will go well on Tuesday.

Stay tuned as this story develops.

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


 

Danger Ahead?

As Tennessee prepares to test more students than ever via an online platform, there are some signs of potential trouble.

Chalkbeat reports:

State officials said Thursday they are confident the new digital platform will work under heavy traffic, even as their new testing vendor, Questar, had headaches administering computer-based tests in New York on Wednesday. Some students there struggled to log on and submit their exam responses — issues that Questar leaders blamed on a separate company providing the computer infrastructure that hosts the tests.

 

Tennessee officials say they are working with Questar to ensure similar problems don’t occur in Tennessee. They also point out our online testing infrastructure is different and that Questar will have troubleshooting staff in the state during the test administration.

Here’s the problem: Across multiple testing vendors and dating back to TCAP, Tennessee has had problems with testing. This includes the now perennial issue of not being able to deliver scores back to districts in a timely manner. In fact, in December, districts were told scores might not be back in a timely fashion this year, either.

It’s possible the state and Questar have all the issues worked out and this year’s test administration will be nearly flawless. However, the record over the past few years is not encouraging.

Then, there’s the issue of what happens with the results. If they are available for factoring into student scores, it is up to districts to choose the method. I’ve written before about why that’s problematic. Here’s a quick summary:

The cube root method yielded on average a quick score, the score that goes for a grade, of 4.46 points higher. In other words, a studentscoring basic with a raw score of 30 or higher would, on average, receive an extra 4.46% on their final quick score grade, which goes on their report card. A student who scored a 70 last year could expect to receive a 74 under the new quick score calculation.

The additional points do drop as one goes up the raw score scale, however. For the average basic student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 30 and 47, they would receive an extra 5.41 extra points under the new method.

The average proficient student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 48 and 60 would get 4.32 extra points under the new method.

The average advanced student grades 3-8 with a raw score of between 61 and 67 would receive an extra 1.97 extra points under the new method.

The difference varies much more widely for below basic students, but the difference can be as much as 25 points in some cases.

So, for those districts using quick scores in report cards, there could be a wide variance across districts depending on the method chosen. It seems to me, districts should have already communicated to families how they will calculate quick scores with some justification for that choice. Alternatively, the state could have (should have?) mandated a method so that there is score consistency across the state.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of using these scores in teacher evaluation. Let’s say testing goes well this year. This would be the first year of a test without problems. If that happens, this should serve as the baseline for any test-based teacher evaluation. Yes, I think using value-added scores is a misguided approach, but if Tennessee is going to go this route, the state ought to take steps to ensure the data is as accurate as possible. That would require at least three years of successful test administration. So far, we have zero.

If TNReady is a great test that has the potential to offer us useful insight into student learning, it’s worth taking the time to get it right. So far, it seems Tennessee has yet to learn the lesson of the NAEP outlier — we don’t need rapid acceleration, we need to be patient, take our time, and focus.

 

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


 

McQueen: Do It My Way

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said yesterday that despite a desire to move a struggling Memphis middle school into a proven local turnaround model managed by the district, she is insisting the school be moved into the failing Achievement School District (ASD).

Chalkbeat reports:

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that American Way Middle School must be converted to a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. If Shelby County Schools doesn’t decide by March 15 to do that on its own, she said, the state will take over the school and move it to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

While the Shelby County Schools iZone has been lauded for achieving solid results, the state’s ASD hasn’t gotten the job done. In fact, of the original schools taken over by the ASD five years ago, all but one remain in the bottom 5% of all schools in the state. That is, there’s be no significant improvement in performance.

So, why is Candice McQueen hellbent on moving American Way into a failed reform model? The Shelby County School Board has taken corrective action and set the school on a path that has gotten proven results at other schools. Further, McQueen’s chosen intervention is one that’s simply not getting results.

Will lawmakers in Nashville take action to stop this move? So far, efforts to rein-in the ASD have been met with significant resistance. However, the lack of a successful TNReady administration has hampered the ASD’s growth. McQueen says that will no longer be a problem:

The commissioner said the state’s decision to delay school takeover until 2019 is due to delayed test scores from the state. That won’t be the case in the next round of sorting schools into various “improvement tracks” under the state’s new school accountability plan. The state’s next list of its lowest performing schools is scheduled to be released next fall, which will inform decisions for future improvement plans.

Let’s be clear: Candice McQueen has presided over a failed transition to a new test and an aggressive intervention model for struggling schools that has left kids behind. Now, she’s insisting that Shelby County do what she says. Why would anyone trust their district’s students to Candice McQueen’s judgment?

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


 

2018 Legislative Preview

The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.

Testing

Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.

RTI

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.

Vouchers

Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

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