This Seems Bad

Is Tennessee on track for another TNReady mess? It sure seems that way.

Chalkbeat has more on the rushed timeline to get a new vendor in place for Fall 2019:

With just months to go before a company is supposed to take over Tennessee’s troubled assessment program, the state has yet to release its request for proposals, potentially putting its next vendor on course for another rushed timeline to testing.

The state’s education department had aimed to solicit proposals by December, receive bids by February, and make a decision by April. Now officials are looking at February to unveil the document that will outline Tennessee’s testing requirements after three straight years of headaches under two different companies.

NOT OPTIMAL

Incoming Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn — who was recruited by new Gov. Bill Lee partly for her experience with assessments in two other states — acknowledges that the timetable is not optimal.

“If I look at other states, including the two that I’ve overseen in Delaware and Texas, the traditional timeline is that a new vendor has a year to set up processes that are really strong and then you execute,” she told Chalkbeat.

“That being said,” she continued, “the responsibility that we have at the department is to follow whatever guidelines, legislation, and expectations are set for us. The expectation is that we have a new vendor in place for next school year, and we will do whatever we can to ensure that is as strong a transition as possible.”

Umm??

Seriously, Tennessee?

Are we going to do this to our kids again?

It sure looks that way.

Hackers. Dump Trucks. Lies. Rushed Timelines. Welcome to Tennessee, Penny Schwinn!

 

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Testing Priorities

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has said she will make getting TNReady “right” her top priority.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts for right-sizing testing in Tennessee:

 

When a test fails over and over again, students stop taking it seriously. When the data is either not returned on time or is the result of a badly botched test administration, teachers are not well-served. Further, parents can’t trust the results sent home — which undermines the entire process.

 

Our next Commissioner of Education must present a plan that moves us away from a test that does more harm than good. We should explore alternatives that reduce total testing time and even those that move away from testing kids every single year. It is also worth taking a year off of testing altogether in order to spend time developing a plan that actually serves our students well.

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


 

Commissioner Schwinn

Tennessee has a new Commissioner of Education.

Chalkbeat has the story of Penny Schwinn:

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by governor-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for school programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

In a statement, Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator. An accompanying news release touted her reform work for leading to “the transformation of a failing state assessment program” and expansion of career readiness programs for students in Texas.

Here’s a word from the President of the Tennessee Education Association, Beth Brown:

As the president of the largest professional association for Tennessee educators, I look forward to working with Commissioner Penny Schwinn in the best interest of Tennessee students, educators and our great public schools. As a newcomer to our state, I hope she will take time to see firsthand the meaningful work happening in classrooms all across Tennessee, and also gain an understanding of the support and resources needed to ensure student success.

Based on our first conversation, I am confident we have common ground on the importance of test transparency, including educators’ voices in policy decisions and working to ensure all students have access to a quality public education.

Schwinn will take over a Department of Education reeling from repeated failures of the state’s standardized test, TNReady, and the subsequent lies to cover up the state’s culpability in those failures.

Additionally, the state’s turnaround district — the Achievement School District (ASD) is simply not getting results.

Schwinn’s tenure in Texas was not without controversy, as noted by the Texas Tribune:

In an audit released Wednesday morning, the State Auditor’s Office reviewed the education agency’s work and found it failed to follow all the required steps before offering a no-bid $4.4 million contract to SPEDx, which was hired to analyze how schools serve students with disabilities and help create a long-term special education plan for the state.

State auditors also said the TEA failed to “identify and address a preexisting professional relationship” between a SPEDx subcontractor and the agency’s “primary decision maker” for the contract. Penny Schwinn — that decision maker and the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics — did not disclose that she had received professional development training from the person who ultimately became a subcontractor on the project.

Schwinn will likely be tasked with taking action on both testing and the ASD as immediate action items. Additionally, it is expected that the Lee Administration will soon pursue an education agenda that includes using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools by way some form of voucher scheme.

 

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


 

Fortune Teller

While reading this piece on Nashville’s large and possibly unsustainable debt burden, I was reminded of the time I imagined what former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean might have said (and done) on a range of issues had he actually been a progressive.

Imaginary Karl Dean had this to say back in 2013:

Dean first suggested that Metro Nashville Schools stop its over-reliance on testing in spite of state mandates.  He noted the practice of data walls as emblematic of the current emphasis on test-based measures of student success and suggested that the schools might try focusing on the whole child.

Turns out, the warning about testing perhaps foretold years of problems ranging from TCAP quick score issues to TNReady failure and lies.  If only policy makers had been paying attention.

Imaginary Karl also offered this:

“It’s not the schools that are failing,” Dean said. “MNPS teachers work hard every single day to reach the children in their care.  But too many of those students arrive hungry and without access to health care or basic shelter.  It’s our community that has failed the families of these children.”

Dean noted that nearly 3 of every 4 MNPS students qualifies for free or reduced price lunch.  He went further to note that 7500 Davidson County families with school age children earn incomes below the federal poverty line (Source: American Community Survey of the U.S. Census).

“We’re simply not supporting the ENTIRE community,” Dean said. “When so many families are working hard and can’t make ends meet, there’s a fundamental problem in the local economy.  Rising income inequality is bad for Nashville.  We must work to address it together now.”

Dean pledged to push for changes in state law to allow Nashville to adopt a living wage and also pledged to use his considerable clout with the General Assembly to advocate for a $10 an hour state minimum wage.

Fast forward to 2019 and we see a city that’s pricing out working class families. Meanwhile, the legislature overrides any attempt at improving wages or working conditions. The situation makes this suggestion seem even better now than it did back in 2013:

Dean said he would work with the staff at Music City Center to turn the nearly $600 million facility into a community center and transitional housing for the working poor.  He noted that it would include free dental and vision clinics for children and an urgent care center for basic medical needs.

“This facility will set Nashville apart as a city that puts people first and will no longer fail its children and families.”

The basic point: We keep having the same conversations. Nothing actually happens. City and state leaders keep saying words, but failing to take action to move us forward.

Another recent story further brings this point home. Much has been made of the relatively low pay Nashville teachers receive. A proposal to provide some form of “low-cost” teacher housing is getting discussion — and pushback:

Mayor Briley is spearheading the proposal to turn the 11-acre property in South Nashville currently used to store and repair school buses into affordable housing for teachers. The city wants to trade it, meaning a developer could build on the land in exchange for other land where the district can build a new bus barn.

“A lot of us have families.  A lot of us have advanced degrees. We don’t want public housing, we want a professional salary,” said Amanda Kail, who teaches at Margaret Allen Middle School. “If you have to public housing for teachers then there is something seriously wrong with our city.”

The underlying issue here is pay. It’s something I’ve written about quite a bit. Specifically, I wrote this in 2015 about Nashville’s then-emerging teacher pay crisis:

Long-term pay increases in MNPS don’t keep pace with those in other, similar districts. Taking Denver as an example, a teacher who received NO ProComp incentives and maintained only a bachelor’s degree would make at Step 13 very close to what an MNPS teacher with similar education makes at Step 20. In all other cities examined, the top step is higher (from $3000 to $15,000) than it is in MNPS.

Two years later, I added this:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?

Then this:

No, better pay alone won’t solve the teacher shortage being experienced in MNPS. But, failure to address the issue of teacher compensation will mean more virtual Ravens, Cobras, and Bears in the future.

This is a problem that could be clearly seen years ago and which still hasn’t been adequately addressed.

It’s now 2019. Still, nothing. No significant movement on a teacher pay crisis that was looming years ago. Decision makers had information available and did nothing.

While we’re on the topic of predicting the future, back in 2013, Governor Bill Haslam and then-Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman made a big deal of Tennessee being the “fastest-improving” in national test scores as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Here’s what I wrote then:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Then, in 2015, added:

This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

Turns out, those predictions were rather accurate:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

 

So, here’s the deal: If you want to know not only what IS happening in Tennessee education policy, but also what WILL happen, read Tennessee Education Report.

What’s coming in 2019? Vouchers!

Also ahead: More platitudes about “access” and “equity.” Oh, and you can count on some words about the importance of testing and benchmarking and rigor and high standards.

What’s not going to happen? There will be no significant new investment in schools initiated by our Governor or legislature. Our state will not apply for an ESSA waiver to move away from excessive testing. There will be no large scale commitment to a living wage or health care access.

Instead, our state (and it’s largest, most vibrant city) will continue to fail many among us. Our policymakers will continue to spread the lie that we just can’t afford to do more.

Maybe one day, Imaginary Karl (or someone with his views) will lead Tennessee out of the wilderness and into a land where we honestly approach (and tackle) our many great challenges.

 

 

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Questar Death Star

The Star Wars movie “Return of the Jedi” features the Empire headed by Darth Vader building a new, more powerful Death Star.  The previous instrument of doom had been destroyed as a weakness was exposed and exploited in “A New Hope.”

Likewise, Tennessee’s testing empire has had weaknesses exposed year after year. Most recently, testing vendor Questar was unable to handle the full load of students taking an online exam all at once. This led to a range of excuses from hackers to dump trucks.

Now, though, the empire is back. Former Commissioner McQueen issued an email highlighting the building of a new testing instrument. Now, vendor of doom Questar is back at it again, promising to bid on the next TNReady. Chalkbeat has the story:

The company that oversaw Tennessee’s glitch-ridden student testing program last spring plans to pursue a new state contract to continue the job in the fall, despite a searing audit that blames the firm for most of the online problems.

Officials with Questar Assessment Inc. acknowledged failures in administering the testing program known as TNReady, but added that “we have learned a lot in two years.”

“I understand we have some mending to do, and we hope to be afforded the opportunity to do that,” Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

As Star Wars fans know, despite appearing to be incomplete, the Death Star in the “Jedi” movie was in fact fully operational and capable of devastating impact. Certainly, Questar’s new version will be just as capable of sucking weeks of valuable instructional time out of the school year while providing little value to students, teachers, or parents. If disruption is your aim, the Questar Death Star may be exactly what Tennessee needs.

Perhaps the next Commissioner of Education will pursue a mission of peace and hope that actually puts students first.

 

 

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Actually Putting Students First

While Tennessee policymakers continue to buy the lie that we can’t move away from our failed high-stakes testing regime, New Mexico’s new governor is taking swift action to put students first.

The Albuquerque Journal reports:

On her third day as governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that New Mexico will drop the oft-maligned PARCC exam after the current school year – if not sooner.

“I know that PARCC isn’t working,” Lujan Grisham said after announcing two executive orders during a news conference at the state Capitol. “We know that around the country.”

The governor, who was joined by four teachers at Thursday’s news conference, also said families and students around the state should “expect to see New Mexico transition immediately out of high-stakes testing.”

Bill Lee will officially be sworn-in as Tennessee Governor on January 19th. So far, he has yet to name a permanent Education Commissioner to replace the outgoing Candice McQueen. Instead, he’s been focused on stocking his staff with supporters of school voucher schemes.

Imagine if he issued a clear, direct statement about the failures of TNReady along the lines of what the new Governor of New Mexico has done. He likely won’t because he’s being advised by those who want to use public money to fund the privatization of our public schools.

Still, there are 15 days before he is officially our Governor. There’s still time to let him know we need to move past the “test-and-punish” system that has failed our students and schools.

Shout out to New Mexico’s governor for exposing the lies of the pro-testing “reformers.”

It’s time that level of good sense infected Tennessee policy making.

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Audit: TDOE Failed in TNReady Implementation

A new audit from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury reveals what many have known for some time: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to adequately supervise a testing vendor was a large part of recent TNReady testing problems.

Here are key items from the Comptroller’s audit of the 2018 TNReady testing cycle:

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has released a performance audit of the Tennessee Department of Education detailing many of the problems that led up to the difficulties in executing the spring 2018 TNReady tests.

The online student assessment tests were plagued with numerous issues including login delays, slow servers, and software bugs. The first signs of trouble began on April 16, 2018 and continued through the end of the month.

Auditors determined that many of these issues occurred primarily because of Questar Assessment, Inc’s performance and updates to the student assessment system. Auditors also found the Department of Education’s oversight of test administration fell short of expectations.

The performance audit’s nine findings include five issues surrounding TNReady. These findings include:

• the department’s lack of sufficient, detailed information on its Work Plan with Questar rendered it less effective as a monitoring tool to ensure Questar met all deadlines.

• Questar’s decision to make an unauthorized change to text-to-speech software without formally notifying the department. This change contributed to the online testing disruptions.

• Questar’s failure to sufficiently staff customer support, resulting in lengthy call wait times and high rates of abandoned calls.

• a failure to track, document, and provide status updates to districts to let them know when students’ tests would be recovered, leaving districts unaware if their students completed the required tests.

• inadequate evaluation and monitoring of internal controls implemented by external information technology service providers, such as Questar.

 

 

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Evidence Be Damned

Failed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, never one to consult actual evidence before making a decision impacting Tennessee children, is now recommending that more schools in Nashville and Memphis be placed in the Achievement School District (ASD).

The state-run intervention district consisting mostly of charter schools has so far failed to produce tangible results.

Here’s more from Chalkbeat:

“Our recommendation will be: As we go into next school year, unless we see some dramatic changes in certain schools, we will move some schools into the Achievement School District,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

Even more alarming, data from the consistently     unreliable TNReady test will be used to make these determinations.  This would certainly seem to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the “No Adverse Action” legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

Taking this action also places the kids in these schools into a cruel experiment… One where we know the outcome, but persist hoping this time will be different. It won’t be.

The next Commissioner of Education would do well to ignore this and any other recommendation from Candice McQueen.

Instead, Bill Lee and his team should focus on policies based on evidence (so not vouchers), teacher input, and student needs.

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

 


 

Reassuring?

Ever oblivious to past failure, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent out an “Educator Update” yesterday announcing the start of TNReady for high school students on block scheduling.

Here’s the text of her email:

Starting tomorrow, high school students on block schedule will take their TNReady end-of-course exam. We have been working hard to ensure they are both academically and technologically successful, and I wanted to make sure you were aware of those preparations and how we plan to address any issue that may arise, particularly if your students are taking their EOC this fall.

First, over the past several weeks, we have passed smoothly through key milestones, such as our verification test of the online platform, where about 50,000 subparts were submitted over the course of an hour – more than we expect to see in fall block during that same period of time. Additionally, we released a new set of online tutorials for test administrators, and more than 1,000 folks have completed those. And most importantly, you have been preparing students with the content knowledge and critical thinking and writing skills they need to have – not just to be successful on TNReady, but for life after graduation.

Every good planning process has to plan for issues that may occur, and we have communicated extensively with your district leaders, testing coordinators, and technology directors to make them aware of the variety of support and communications avenues available. If you or your students run into any issues, please immediately contact your building testing coordinator. You can also consult this one-page troubleshooting guide. If you do not see your issue addressed here, your building testing coordinator may have more information, and they can coordinate with your district testing coordinator to get assistance. We work directly with your district testing coordinator throughout each day of the testing window, communicating with them on daily webinars, a call line for immediate assistance, text message alerts, and constant email messages and one-on-one phone calls. From here, we can take a number of steps to solve problems, including sending a support team to your school. We have those teams stationed across the state so each school can be reached within 90 minutes.

Thank you for your patience with us and support of our students as we have worked toward this moment. We all want testing to be a seamless experience where students can show what they know, so you can better understand your students’ mastery of the standards and reflect on how you can continue to improve your practice. That is powerful information, and we want you to have it as easily and quickly as possible. We are continuing to improve as we aim for that goal.

A reminder

While Commissioner McQueen’s note sounds nice, let’s remember that last year, the Fall administration of TNReady went relatively smoothly. Then, there were dump trucks and hackers. It’s also not like we haven’t had some sort of testing problem every year in the past five years:

Lately, this season has brought another ritual: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to deliver student test scores. Each of the last three years has seen TNDOE demonstrate it’s inability to get state testing right (nevermind the over-emphasis on testing to begin with).

Back in 2014, there was a delay in the release of the all-powerful “quick scores” used to help determine student grades. Ultimately, this failure led to an Assistant Commissioner losing her job.

Then, in 2015, the way “quick scores” were computed was changed, creating lots of confusion. The Department was quick to apologize, noting:

We regret this oversight, and we will continue to improve our processes such that we uphold our commitment to transparency, accuracy, and timeliness with regard to data returns, even as we experience changes in personnel.

The processes did not appear to be much improved at all as the 2016 testing cycle got into full swing, with a significant technical failure on Day One.

Every year, we hear about how TNReady is ready. Sometimes, the early administration goes well. Then, all hell breaks loose. So far, the call for options or a pause on the test has not been heeded. Instead, our state continues testing and continues making excuses and continues telling everyone it will all be fine.

Will Governor Bill Lee and the new General Assembly take a new approach? Will a new Commissioner explore an ESSA waiver and testing options? Will the advice of a handful of districts and the state’s PTA be heeded?

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


 

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What’s Your Story?

Tennessee Education Report is committed to telling the story of K-12 education in Tennessee. Since 2013, this publication has reported on state policy changes and education politics.

Recently, there’s been a focus on issues like portfolio evaluation and TNReady.

While I love digging into an issue and providing analysis I hope readers find insightful, there’s no substitute for the voice of educators. Teachers doing the work every single day know exactly what’s happening in our schools and are uniquely positioned to offer advice to policy makers.

Now is a great time to share that voice. We have a new Governor coming into office in January. Our General Assembly will have many new faces and new leadership.

I want to share your story — to publish your article or commentary on issues like teacher pay, TVAAS, teacher evaluation, portfolios, testing, and whatever else is of interest to you.

I’m also happy to hear from you and use your ideas to investigate and report on a story or issues impacting schools in our state.

If you have a story idea or want to write a commentary, email me at andy@tnedreport.com.

What’s your story?

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


 

 

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