Opting Out of TNReady

Yes, you can opt your child out of this year’s TNReady test. This is true in spite of misleading guidance offered to school districts by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Fortunately, the advocates over at Save our Schools PAC offer some key insight into just how to accomplish this. Here’s a quick rundown:

There are only eight states that allow you to opt your child out of testing. Tennessee is NOT one of those states. However, there are no state laws in TN that require your child to take any TNReady test, so you and your child can refuse the test.

To refuse the test, you’ll need to make your request in writing and explain to your child why they will not be taking the test and to not be pressured into taking the test.

About a week prior to the testing window, send a confirmation email to the school principal. In this email, ask what your child will be allowed or not allowed to do during testing. We found this differs with schools and even with teachers within the schools. Most of the time, children will be allowed to read. You may also wish to hold your child out of school on test days. This could impact truancy reports, so be sure you speak to your child’s school about the impact of this decision. One parent who refused all tests was happy to keep her children home on testing days, knowing that if the school or state tried to punish her child for this decision, it would make a great news story.

If teachers, principals, or district leaders tell you can’t “opt out” because it hurts the school or district, you might share this with them:

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.

See, no big deal. Except, well, Penny Schwinn wants to make it a big deal. Just like the previous Commissioner of Education wanted to make it a big deal.

Save our Schools offers some additional background:

The 2015-2016 school year was the first year for online testing, and it was a dismal failure. Measurement Inc.’s MIST testing platform frequently crashed due to a severe network outage. Quick scores were waived from being counted in student grades. The roll out of the new standards aligned with the TNReady test was delayed for a year when the legislature outlawed PARCC testing. As a result, the TDOE signed a $108M contract with Measurement Inc. using AIR as its subcontractor. AIR is affiliated with the Smarter Balanced test, a competitor to Pearson’s PARCC assessment.

On May 16, 2016, Candice McQueen sent out a letter to superintendents announcing the termination of the Measurement, Inc. contract on April 27, 2016. The immediate termination of Measurement, Inc. forced TDOE to spend yet more money on testing and execute an emergency contract with Pearson to score and report 2015-2016 assessments. The state hired a new test vendor, Questar Assessment, Inc., which received a $60M contract for 2 years. In June 2017, Measurement Inc. filed a $25.3M lawsuit against TDOE.

During the 2016-2017 school year, testing finally aligned with the new state standards for the first time, and TCAP was renamed TNReady. Due to prior failures, online testing was abandoned, and the TDOE returned to paper tests. However, there were still problems. Questar incorrectly scored almost 10,000 tests, which affected 70 schools in 33 districts. Quick scores were once again waived from being counted in student grades.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the TDOE attempted online testing again, and it was a complete disaster. Testing was abruptly cancelled midstream due to widespread technical problems. TDOE blamed an outside “deliberate attack” and a dump truck for the outages. Later, TDOE recanted and said that Questar was at fault. An attempt to print paper tests was initiated but soon scrapped, and testing was cancelled for the year.

The bottom line:

TNReady testing has been a disaster. Even before the pandemic. No matter who the vendor has been or how has held the title of Commissioner of Education. The results this year will likely yield almost no actionable information due to the overall disruption caused by COVID-19. And, what happens even in “good years” of testing?

The test is a demonstration of poverty – both among students and among districts:

An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.

Much attention was focused on Tennessee and our “rapid gains” on the NAEP. Less celebrated by state officials was the attendant expansion of the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

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.

Of further interest is an analysis of 3-year ACT averages. Here again, 9 of the top 10 districts on ACT performance spend well above the state average in per pupil spending. The top 10 districts in ACT average spend an average of $900 more per student than the state’s average per pupil expenditure.

Opting out is up to you, of course. But, it’s definitely possible. Refer to Save our Schools for the guidance you need to make that happen.

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

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Did They Even Read This?

It’s not clear that the Department of Education previewed or even actually read the words in a document intended to dissuade parents from opting their children out of state standardized tests.

While activists in Tennessee and around the country are encouraging the Biden Administration to grant testing waivers, parents are not waiting and are taking matters into their own hands.

In fact, when one parent recently indicated to a school principal that their child would be “opting out” of state testing in 2021, they were provided with a one page document from the Tennessee Department of Education explaining that opting-out is not an option.

Here’s that letter:

Opting Out of Annual Assessments 

October 2020 Updated 10/19/2020 

What is the Purpose of Annual Assessments? 

Annual assessments are critical to ensure that all students are making strong academic progress. In Tennessee, one measure of  student, school, and district academics is through the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), which are tests  aligned with our state’s academic standards, outlining what students are expected to know, guiding educators as they design their  lessons and curriculum. As Tennessee’s teachers work to equip all students with the knowledge and skills they need, we have to  ensure that we can identify any major gaps in students’ learning and find variations in growth among different schools – both so we  can strengthen support in places that need it and learn from educators and students who are excelling. 

Results from TCAP tests give both teachers and parents a unique feedback loop and big-picture perspective to better understand  how students are progressing and how to support their academic development. This yearly academic check-up is the best way to see  how all students in Tennessee are doing, and it is one key measure through which we learn if are meeting our responsibility to  prepare all students for college and the workforce. Because of the importance of annual assessment, we believe it is crucial for all  students to take all TCAP tests each year.  

May parents opt their students out of testing? 

State and federal law requires student participation in state assessments. These statutes specifically reference the expectation that  all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments. Therefore, school districts are not authorized  to adopt policies allowing these actions.  

No, state and federal law requires student participation in state assessments. In fact, these statutes specifically reference the  expectation that all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments. Given both the importance  and legal obligation, parents may not refuse or opt a child out of participating in state assessments. Therefore, school districts are  not authorized to adopt policies allowing these actions.  

With the exception of students impacted by COVID-19 as described below, school districts must address student absences on testing  days in the same manner as they would address a student’s failure to participate in any other mandatory activity at school (e.g. final  exams) by applying the district’s or school’s attendance policies.  

What considerations may be made for students impacted by COVID-19? 

Students Impacted Medically by COVID-19 

A student who tests positive for COVID-19 and is unable to return to school to test may be exempt from testing following  appropriate medical exemption documentation.  

Supporting Students with Existing Health Conditions 

Students with health conditions, such as those who may be immunocompromised, may also qualify for a medical exemption, if the  school building testing coordinator or district testing coordinator is unable to accommodate the testing environment needed to  ensure student safety. Students with other diagnoses whose needs can be addressed with appropriate supports throughout the  school year should have a plan that includes the student’s needs during testing as well. Districts should follow accommodations  available to students as outlined in these plans, as long as they do not compromise test security or the validity of the assessment.  

Guidance for Classrooms and Schools Impacted by Quarantine 

In the case of a student, set of students, or school impacted by a quarantine due to COVID-19 in advance of testing, school districts  are strongly encouraged to schedule make-up testing opportunities that would be able to be administered at a date when students  could safely return to school. School districts typically schedule make-up opportunities shortly after their previously communicated  test dates but this Fall may choose to offer additional make-up testing opportunities for students later if they can plan with enough  advance notice to ensure test availability. 

Key Phrase

Here’s the key phrase (repeated twice in the letter):

These statutes specifically reference the expectation that  all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments.

Note that no sections of Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) or United States Code (USC) are referenced here. Why? Because the codes that require students to take the tests do not exist. There are Tennessee regulations preventing districts from adopting policies regarding opting-out. Violation of such policies is subject to a penalty determined by the Commissioner of Education.

But, the laws on the books regarding students merely “reference the expectation” that students will complete the assessments.

Umm? What?

Did anyone at DOE read this “guidance” before sending it out? Does the staff there assume that Tennessee parents can’t actually read?

Your child “must” take the test because districts aren’t allowed to adopt policies allowing opt-out and because someone who wrote some statutes “expects” that children will complete assessments?

No. Just no.

That’s not how this works.

In fact, here’s something I wrote back in 2016 that is directly relevant now:

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.

See, no big deal. Except, well, Penny Schwinn wants to make it a big deal. Just like the previous Commissioner of Education wanted to make it a big deal.

Dear parents: Don’t be bullied by letters riddled with redundancy from the Department of Education. Instead, push back on Penny’s petulance.

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

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Cancel the Tests

In response to the Biden Administration’s insistence that students will take standardized tests this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of Members of Congress are urging Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to rethink that decision and cancel the tests. Now, the Network for Public Education is urging action to support these Members of Congress in their efforts.

Here’s more from the NPE email:

In December of 2019, candidate Joe Biden promised that if elected, he would stop standardized testing. His Department of Ed, however, said that we should have testing in the middle of the pandemic.

We pushed back and today, we have good news! Some members of Congress are asking the U.S. Department of Education to change its mind about testing! Read about it here. Let’s give them our support TODAY!

We need more members of Congress to get on board. We can’t give up.

1. Call Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office at: (202) 225-4965.

Here is a suggested script.

My name is (name). I am calling to request that Speaker Pelosi ask the President and Secretary Cardona to grant waivers from annual testing. Forcing schools to administer annual tests undermines the administration’s call to support our students’ social-emotional and mental health in this time of crisis. We need to put children, not data, first. Thank you.

2. Then call your Representative and Senators. You can find their numbers here and here.

Here is a suggested script.

“My name is (name), and I am a constituent of (name). I strongly oppose the Department of Ed’s recent letter that forces schools to administer annual tests this year. All of our schools’ efforts must be used to support our students’ social-emotional and mental health in this time of crisis.  I am requesting that (name) speak with the President and Secretary Cardona and ask them to grant waivers from the annual testing mandate. Thank you.”

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

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Testing During a Pandemic is a Crime

Former Nashville school board member Amy Frogge posts on Facebook about the disappointing decision by the Biden Administration to insist on federally-mandated state standardized tests as our schools continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s what Frogge has to say:

This is a huge disappointment. Standardized testing in general is pretty useless. It does not improve outcomes for students or help drive instruction for teachers. To require testing during a pandemic is a crime. I can tell you the results right now: Children will fail- if they even show up at all.

The decision to require testing this year was rolled out by acting Assistant Secretary of Education Ian Rosenblum, Executive Director of the Education Trust- New York. The Education Trust is a corporate reform nonprofit funded (likely in the hundreds of millions at this point) by Bill Gates. Gates and The Education Trust have pushed for more standardized testing, Common Core standards and No Child Left Behind, which was an abject failure. (Bill Gates did not subject his own children to all this nonsense. He sent them to private school.)

Here in Nashville, The Education Trust is run by school board member Gini Pupo-Walker, who has also advocated for more testing and standardized testing during the pandemic.

The Education Trust purports to be focused on equity and closing the achievement gap- but don’t be fooled. There is evidence that all this testing has actually widened the achievement gap, and at the very least, it has maintained the achievement gap, which should be obvious to anyone paying attention. We should be spending more time on classroom learning and less time on endlessly assessing children.

Testing companies seeking a profit off children are swarming the Tennessee legislature. This year alone, 135 lobbyists are lobbying for privatization interests, including testing companies, at our legislature. That’s what this is really all about.

We should all hold President Biden accountable for this terrible decision. In the meantime, you can fight back by opting your children out of tests. (Stay tuned, more to come!)

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

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A Tennessee-based Company Wants to Help You Get Money for College

Bobby Nicholson and his company, Outlier’s Advantage, want Tennessee kids and kids nationwide to have the best possible chance to earn money to attend college. That’s why they created the It Pays to Prep guide. At first, it was a guide to merit-based scholarship criteria for Tennessee schools. Now, they’ve gone national. I asked Nicholson to tell me more about It Pays to Prep and what it means for students headed to college.

1) Tell me more about It Pays to Prep. When did it start? What information is in it? 

We published the first edition of It Pays to Prep in 2016. Many families were not aware of the guaranteed scholarship model that most colleges now use. Furthermore, most families weren’t aware of how much money was being awarded for each additional point that their student earns on the ACT. We also were trying to give our students more motivation to put in the work necessary to beat the ACT. Hence, It Pays to Prep was born. 

In its most basic form, it gives families an easy way to find their student’s GPA and ACT score and find how much money they will be awarded at different schools. We list the value per year and over four years, the tuition and fees per year at that school, and the amount remaining for families to pay per year. It also lists general information about the school. 

It Pays to Prep helps students consider a wide range of colleges that they may not have ever looked into before. It also helps families easily compare schools to each other. 

2) This has historically been a guide focused on Tennessee schools — what made you take it national? 

Our plan is to become the premier ACT prep provider for high-achieving students nationwide. No one else is compiling anything like this, especially not in the easy to read format that we do. We hope this begins to garner traffic and attention all over the nation and simultaneously spreads the word about the work we are doing at Outlier’s Advantage: ACT Prep Academy.

3) What information is in It Pays to Prep that parents can’t or won’t find from other sources?

Parents can find almost all of the information elsewhere. The benefit of It Pays to Prep is that we spend hundreds of hours finding all of this information, separating the wheat from the chaff, and compiling it all on one easy to read document. 

4) What do you see as the biggest challenge for parents and students navigating the college admissions process?

There is so much variation in what students should be doing dependent on their current situation and their goals. Most of the information available is geared towards the average college-bound student. For above-average students, unless they go to a great school, it is often very hard for them to know what they need to be doing and when. 

Here are some simple pieces of advice for students who are hoping to win merit-based scholarship money or attend a competitive school. 

    ⁃    Make sure you have at least a 3.8 weighted GPA by the end of your junior year. Big schools are usually only looking at GPAs from freshman through junior year. Students can lose their scholarship based on how they do their senior year, but students cannot gain it. This may change with everything going on because of COVID, but it is best to be safe.

    ⁃    Take the hardest classes your school offers. Competitive schools have a rating system that ranks how many of the hardest classes you took. This will also better prepare you to be successful at the college level and on your ACT. 

    ⁃    If you are in middle school or younger, set a goal to have read 100 books by the end of your sophomore year of high school. Your reading speed will be one of the biggest determining factors in how you do on standardized tests and how long homework takes in college.

    ⁃    Take your first ACT before your junior year. Most high schools offer it for the first time in the spring semester of junior year. This is great for most students. However, if you are hoping to win merit-based scholarship money, we would advise taking it as soon as you can after you complete algebra II and geometry. This gives you your sophomore summer and junior year to prep for your ACT, and it gives you your junior summer and senior fall to search for colleges and scholarships. 

    ⁃    Governor’s School applications often need to be submitted before December of your junior year. 

    ⁃    Though it has some reasonable critics, collegescorecard.ed.gov is a must-use resource for students deciding where to go to college. The two metrics that we use it for the most are the percentage of students returning after their first year and the average salary after graduation. These numbers aren’t necessarily representative of what your experience will be like, but they are good at helping to compare schools.

Here’s the latest version of the national guide.

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

Tennesseans for Stupid Testing

Dark money lobbying group Tennesseans for Student Success is out with a statement supporting Gov. Bill Lee’s weak ploy on state testing — continuing with the time-wasting tests while taking it easy on so-called accountability measures.

Here’s what Tennesseans for Student Success has to say:

“Tennessee students and teachers have been challenged this year in ways we could not have imagined. We have been inspired by the commitment demonstrated by parents and teachers to provide intellectually challenging learning opportunities for students across the state,” said Adam Lister, TSS President & CEO. “In these uncertain times, abandoning testing and progress reporting for our students would be a mistake and result in leaving some of our students behind. By continuing with end-of-year testing, the governor ensures each Tennessee student will receive the support they need based on objective data to measure learning loss, inequities, and areas of improvement. We also believe, in this extraordinary moment, student growth measures should not be used in teacher evaluations unless it benefits the teacher and supports his or her professional growth. We thank Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn for their commitment to student improvement and growth in the future generation.”

So, basically, they say: “Hey, look, we know this pandemic sucks and learning time has been lost, etc. But, let’s take weeks out of the year for a test that hasn’t really worked at all in the past five years.”

Meanwhile, Congressman Mark Green is simply calling for the cancellation of TNReady.

In addition to being dark money spenders and supporters of stupid testing, let’s not forget this group is also pretty good friends with payday predators:

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Taking on Testing

Four members of the Tennessee House of Representatives have signed a letter to Gov. Bill Lee calling on him to end TNReady testing and teacher evaluations this year. The move follows a similar request issued by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) last week. The letter, signed by Representatives John Ray Clemmons, Gloria Johnson, Bill Beck, and Jason Hodges notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has created special challenges that must be taken into account.

Here’s that letter:

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TEA Continues Push to #CancelTNReady

Following an announcement from Gov. Bill Lee today that this year’s state testing will not be used in so-called accountability measures related to teachers and schools in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Tennessee Education Association renewed its call to cancel the TNReady test altogether.

Here’s more from a press release:

“The governor’s statement is a good first step on how to support educators who are already doing everything they can during a pandemic,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “There are additional important steps the administration can take quickly to further reduce the burden on teachers and administrators.”

TEA calls for extending hold-harmless to include suspension of other areas of the evaluation system that take up enormous time and are not aligned to teaching in a pandemic, such as observations and portfolios for non-tested grades.

“It’s not just standardized testing. Our evaluation system is simply not designed to assess teaching during a pandemic,” Brown said. “Many educators are teaching both virtually and in person. We constantly adjust to disruptions caused by infections or quarantines. We teach while doing everything we can to minimize transmission and take time to attend to the emotional needs of students dealing with the pandemic. None of these issues are even remotely included in models the state requires schools use to evaluate teachers.”

The administration could save teachers countless hours by letting school systems know that observations, portfolios, and other evaluation requirements may be suspended, letting teachers devote that time instead to the hard work required for both in-person and online instruction. It would be a tremendous signal of support to Tennessee’s teachers.

As has been the case for months, TEA also disagrees with the administration on the need to administer state standardized testing during the pandemic and calls for the suspension of TNReady.  

“Administering state tests takes weeks and disrupts instruction,” Brown said. “Our students are already dealing with so many distractions and challenges that we simply cannot afford to lose additional instructional time. Our goal must be to get students back on track, not collect testing data that everyone knows will be so flawed it will be useless.”

TEA understands assessing students is important and is being done on a continual basis by educators.

“We don’t need to have state standardized tests to know where students are academically,” Brown said. “We have ongoing state-approved benchmark assessments in addition to the tests and exams teachers administer themselves throughout the school year. If you want to know where students are academically, just look at our gradebooks.”

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Green Calls on State to #CancelTNReady

Congressman Mark Green last week issued a call for the State of Tennessee to cancel the TNReady tests and teacher evaluations based on them for this school year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s more from a press release:

Rep. Mark Green issued this statement regarding high stakes testing and teacher evaluations in the wake of COVID-19:

“Teachers, students, and parents quickly adapted in the wake of this pandemic. To treat this school year like any other by requiring high stakes testing and teacher evaluations would force an unnecessary burden on educators and students alike. We should acknowledge these challenges, cancel high stakes testing, and devote resources to ensuring students can learn safely and effectively in person.”

“These one-size-fit-all mandates overlook the challenges of the pandemic and divert resources that could instead be used to close the learning loss gap. I urge both our State and Federal governments to immediately address this distraction from the classroom and cancel high stakes testing and teacher evaluations for the 2020-2021 school year.”

Rep. Mark Green has been a champion of both students and teachers during his time in the U.S. Congress and the Tennessee State Senate. He has sponsored bills to help students pay off student loans at the federal level, and in Tennessee, he authored the Teachers’ Bill of Rights.

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

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What Passes for Rigor

Nashville education blogger TC Weber takes on the recently released CREDO study of supposed student learning loss in his most recent post. It’s the study relied on by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn as she doubles down both on the need for kids to return to in-person instruction AND the critical need for ever more testing.

Here’s one paragraph that stood out to me:

Third, the need for rigorous student-level learning assessments has never been higher. In particular, this crisis needs strong diagnostic assessments and frequent progress checks, both of which must align with historical assessment trends to plot a recovery course. The losses presented here implicitly endorse a return to student achievement testing with the same assessment tools for the foreseeable future. At the same time, preserving and expanding the existing series is the only way to reliably track how well states and districts are moving their schools through recovery and into the future.

That’s directly from CREDO. Yes, they’re saying we need to continue with the testing regime we have. Since the folks at CREDO seem so interested in testing that aligns with “historical assessment trends,” let’s take a brief look at just how well testing has gone in Tennessee over the past few years.

To say that TNReady has been disappointing would be an understatement. From day one, the test has been fraught with challenges. There have been three vendors in five years, and a range of issues that caused one national expert to say:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Here’s more from the TNNotReady chronicles:

Hackers. Dump Trucks. Lies. Three vendors over five years. A broken system that sucks the life out of instructional time. That’s what CREDO and Commissioner Schwinn want to continue. Make no mistake, this is not about what’s good for Tennessee kids – it’s most definitely about what’s good for national testing companies and the Commissioner’s career aspirations.

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