What’s the Big Deal?

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Germantown School District’s letter in response to Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda as passed in the January special legislative session. Specifically, I noted that Germantown expressed concern about SB 7001, which heavily incentivizes districts to reach 80% participation in TNReady testing – testing that must take place in-person.

Why does this even matter? Well, as the Germantown Board points out, a number of families have chosen to have students participate in remote-only learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Requiring those students to return to school in-person may very well be a difficult, it not impossible, task.

So what?

Well, if your district doesn’t reach the magic 80% threshold, the district is subject to a range of potential penalties, including receiving a “letter grade” from the state about the quality of schools and the possibility of having schools assigned to the failed Achievement School District.

First of all, there shouldn’t be any testing at all this academic year due to the pandemic and the huge disruption it has been and continues to be for teachers and learners.

Second, in the best of circumstances, the TNReady test is of limited value. Specifically, our state has struggled to even properly administer a test.

Third, really? Testing this year? Despite what the Biden Administration says, it’s just a very bad idea.

While this legislation aligns with what House Education Committee Chair Mark White calls a “carrot and stick” approach, it seems rather counterproductive.

So, if you can’t get your district to the magic 80%, there could be all sorts of potentially negative impacts.

There’s actually some history with the Department of Education punishing districts that don’t reach arbitrary targets.

Will the General Assembly move to correct this mess soon, or will they allow the Commissioner of Education broad discretion to use suspect data to advance a school privatization agenda?

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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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#CancelTNReady

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, calls are rising for the State of Tennessee to cancel the annual student assessment known as TNReady. If followed, this would be the second consecutive year the test did not happen. TNReady has a troubled history, with three testing vendors over five years and a slew of problems.

Here’s more on the latest debate from Chalkbeat:

Tennessee’s simmering debate over standardized testing is heating up during the pandemic as key education groups clash over whether the state should remove the burden of testing from school communities for a second straight year.

Groups began lining up both for and against testing after Superintendent Joris Ray, who leads the state’s largest district in Memphis, announced Monday that he will petition Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to take steps to drop the annual assessment known as TNReady in 2020-21

In addition to Ray, the Tennessee Education Association has expressed support for suspending the test in the coming year.

Meanwhile, pro-testing lobby group SCORE continues to push a narrative that says the failed test is a necessary tool:

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Truly Disturbing

Will TNReady be ready this year? Some employees at the Tennessee Department of Education are raising alarms, according to a story from Fox 17 in Nashville.

The story details emails from whistleblowers within the department who call the current work environment “truly disturbing.” The complaints note that staffing issues — an unusually high turnover rate — are creating problems with preparation for this year’s assessment:

The three whistleblowers which wrote to FOX 17 News all requested anonymity to protect their professional careers. Their ultimate concern with the new hires and staff turnover is that the state is unprepared to administer a successful TCAP — the test that measures success in the classroom. Even at full staff, the state has had problems effectively administering the test in the past. Several have left the assessment team including the two individuals with the most experience in “assessment content and logistics.”

An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

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.

So, here we go again. Another year, another warning about potential TNReady trouble. Now, of course, we’re also stuck with a Governor who seems not to know or care about how to run government effectively.

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Not Worth It

That’s how teachers view standardized testing in Tennessee, according to a statewide survey.

The Cookeville Herald-Citizen reports on attitudes toward standardized testing (TNReady) among teachers in Putnam County and notes the results are similar statewide:


Most teachers in Putnam County say information received from statewide standardized exams is not worth the investment of time and effort.
The results come from the state’s 2019 Tennessee Educator Survey released Thursday.
The state Department of Education said more than 45,000 Tennessee educators completed this year’s survey, representing 62 percent of the state’s teachers — an all-time high response rate. In Putnam County, 80 percent of the teachers took the survey, as did 88 percent of administrators.
According to the results, 62 percent of Putnam teachers either disagreed or strongly disagreed that standardized testing was worth the effort. Statewide, that percentage was 63 percent.

It’s no surprise that educators find little value in TNReady given the challenges with test delivery over the past five years:


We moved from a different type of test to an online test that failed to a paper test, to another online failure, and back to a paper test. Can we really measure any actual growth based on those circumstances?

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers and Governor Lee respond to this crisis of confidence in state testing. I suspect many promises will be made and, ultimately, nothing will change.

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Don’t Call it a Comeback

At the end of June, Pearson signed a two-year, $40 million contract to takeover the failed TNReady test. This is the third vendor in the five year history of the new, supposedly better test.

This is a role Pearson has played before. When the first TNReady vendor, Measurement, Inc. failed to deliver, Pearson came to the rescue. The effort earned the testing giant $18.5 million.

Here’s the problem: Pearson seems to have a habit of failing to keep student data secure. Two recent stories out of Illinois and Nevada raise questions about the ability of Pearson to protect student information.

From the Kane County Chronicle in Illinois:


Both school districts have notified parents that they recently learned from Pearson Clinical Assessment that the company experienced a data security incident related to their AIMSweb 1.0 product by an unauthorized third party. The districts used AIMSweb 1.0 to track student academic progress and are among 13,000 Pearson clients impacted by this incident.

And from the Nevada Review Journal:


More than 650,000 Nevada students had personal information exposed in a data breach announced this week by the state’s two largest school districts, prompting internet safety advocates to urge parental caution with products children use online.


The breach involved Pearson Clinical Assessment’s software program known as Aimsweb 1.0, which is used for screening and assessment.

This is not exactly a reassuring restart of Tennessee’s relationship with Pearson.

Maybe, though, they can effectively administer an online test without problems?

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Happy TNReady Week

Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch offers this commentary on TNReady and vouchers:

HAPPY TN READY WEEK!!! Are you excited???

Oh wow…..that’s a lot of one finger salutes….😟.

So you’re saying you aren’t a fan of the state’s mandated TN Ready testing and your satisfaction levels so far are akin to the Comcast customer service line?

Well you may want to stop reading now because the fact is that under the proposed Voucher bills currently before the Tennessee legislature, those tests are just for your kids. Those using public dollars for private for-profit schools in the form of vouchers wouldn’t be subject to the same apples-to-apples testing requirement.

According to Chalkbeat:

“Students receiving education savings accounts — a newer kind of voucher now under consideration by the Tennessee General Assembly — would have to take half as many tests as their counterparts in public schools.

The retreat in accountability for a proposed pilot program even has some of the new Republican governor’s supporters scratching their heads.

“I would think that we would want the recipients to go through the full battery of assessments that students in public schools would receive,” said freshman Rep. Charlie Baum, a Republican from Murfreesboro, of the need to “compare apples to apples” in measuring the program’s success.”

Testing Time

Here’s a link to the TN Department of Education’s page on testing times for various grade levels.

The information on the site indicates that students in 3rd grade can expect to spend 5 hours and 45 minutes testing. Of course, this all happens over a week, and means students effectively lose days of instructional time.

This year, many Tennessee students are taking tests on pencil and paper since our TNDOE can’t predict when hackers or dump trucks will attack the integrity of our state’s tests.

Next year, as we shift to a new vendor, we’ll also see students take pencil and paper tests. Then, back to online TNReady for testing in the 2020-21 academic year.

No word from our new Commissioner of Education on amending our state’s ESSA application to change testing formats or move away from annual testing altogether.

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Unable to Verify

As TNReady prepares to start in a few weeks, more reassuring news from the Tennessee Department of Education.

Here’s the story, as reported by the Tennessean:


Tennessee education officials haven’t been able to verify if Questar Assessment, the state’s TNReady vendor, has the capacity to serve all test takers in the coming weeks. 


According to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, “flu and floodings” that impacted schools have prevented the department from running two verification tests ahead of statewide testing in April.
“We had one verification test and too many schools were closed, and we had another verification test and didn’t have enough schools because of flus and flooding,” Schwinn, who started her job in February, said. 

After a year of testing marked by hackers and dump trucks, it would seem the TNDOE would do more to ensure tests were ready this year. Or, even better, just take the year off and work to get testing “right” with a new vendor in 2019-20.

Instead, they push forward. So far, unable to verify the testing platform will work in spite of reports that practice tests aren’t always going so well.

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Toward Testing Transparency

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers thoughts on testing transparency as the next round of TNReady approaches.

Thomas Jefferson believed: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” We could not agree more. In Tennessee, our state agencies have a core function to serve the citizen’s interest, and protect our taxpayers to the benefit of the state. To ensure our school districts have aligned standards and instructional practices, we must have greater transparency in testing. Recently, Senate Bill 753/House Bill 1246 was introduced to address this critical issue.

This legislation, which we call the Testing Transparency Act, is common sense and is supported by both the Professional Educators of Tennessee and the Tennessee School Boards Association. The legislation will require the Tennessee Department of Education to release 50 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2019-20 school year, 75 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2020-21 school year, and 100 percent of questions, with correct answers, from the TCAP tests of the 2021-22 school year, to each LEA and public school. This proposed legislation will require these questions to be sent no less than 30 days after completion of TCAP tests.

That sounds simple enough, and it allows the state time to develop an adequate supply of questions. More importantly, it creates transparency in the system, and restores trust to the process. This importance is critical, if stakeholders are to have any faith in our testing system. By releasing the test questions LEAs can:

  1. Have informed discussions about a school or district’s curriculum.
  2. Allow educators to explore the links between concepts they teach and ways to measure students’ understanding.
  3. Permit districts and educators to design their own assessment according to their needs.
  4. Encourage districts and educators to reflect on the performance of their students in comparison to the performance of students in other schools and districts.

Accurate or not, tests have come to be viewed by the public as indicators of how well schools are educating our children. If this were the sole standard by which we measure success, then we have failed students, parents, and taxpayers—and especially our educators. Our state has spent an inordinate amount of time and money to test our students, without much to show for our efforts. It is time that changes, and the state must be willing to embrace this needed transparency.

The fixation by policymakers with increasing test scores, often overlooks the point that many policymakers, stakeholders and the general public do not really understand testing and/or the process. This helps lift the veil of secrecy, fosters needed discussion and helps us better measure what our educators teach.

If you believe in the importance of testing, your support of the Testing Transparency Act helps ensure that our public schools are not judged with the wrong assessment tools. If you do not support the Testing Transparency Act, you will be unable to bolster a case to create a different way of measuring school performance and support continued spending on statewide testing without having a chance to see the results. Senate Bill 753/House Bill 1246 is needed in Tennessee, and we encourage its passage.

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

Penny’s Problem

Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner has a problem. While she’s going around the state and supposedly listening to teachers and parents, she’s missing the key message: No one trusts TNReady.

Just this week, the Maury County School Board passed a resolution opposing the continued use of TNReady tests. The Maury County Education Association immediately announced support of the move. This comes as a new survey reveals an overwhelming majority of teachers don’t believe TNReady is an accurate reflection of student performance.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Schwinn is reassuring everyone that the next iteration of TNReady will be just fine, despite the fact a new vendor won’t be in place until 2019.

It’s a line we’ve all heard before. Failed Commissioner Candice McQueen often told us that we’d get TNReady right “this year.” But we never did. TNReady is never ready. It hasn’t been and it seems likely it won’t be.

To be fair, Schwinn inherited a hot mess in taking over the Tennessee Department of Education. That said, exhibiting real leadership requires that she make tough choices. Instead, she’s trotting out the same tired lines Tennesseans have heard year after year.

We have a new governor named Bill. Just like the last Bill who was our governor, this one has chosen an education commissioner who is putting her head in the sand instead of standing up and facing the very real policy problems impacting our schools.

TNReady has consistently failed our students, teachers, and communities. Groups across the state are sending this message loud and clear. Still, the highest levels of power are ignoring the screaming masses.

“Trust us one more time,” they say.

We’d don’t. We won’t. We can’t.

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

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