Not Listening

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has been visiting schools around the state, but apparently, she’s NOT listening.

Here’s more from a visit she made to an elementary school in Bristol:


During a visit Thursday to Anderson Elementary School in Bristol, Tennessee, Schwinn emphasized a number of priorities. 
She said it’s essential the next vendor puts more safeguards in place to ensure testing goes smoothly.
“Certainly we’re going to hold the new vendor accountable,” said Schwinn. 

Additionally, Schwinn commented on the timeline for hiring a new testing vendor:


Schwinn said the bidding process for a new vendor will begin in a few weeks but they don’t plan to execute a new contract until September 2019. 

That’s right. There won’t even be a new testing vendor for the next iteration of TNReady until September of 2019. Students will start taking tests (at least EOC) by December. The September hiring also gives the new vendor just 8 months to prepare for the heavy testing month of April 2020.

Here’s the deal: No one trusts TNReady. Teachers tell us they don’t believe it accurately measures student performance. After a year of supposed hackers and imaginary dump trucks, students don’t take it seriously.

Schwinn is repeating lines used by former Commissioner Candice McQueen. She’s talking about safeguards and teacher resources when there are testing problems. Those of us who have actually been in Tennessee the past five years know what that means: Nothing will change.

How long will we tolerate a failed testing regime that provides little usable data and results in policy that’s bad for kids?

Good news, Tennesseans — the new Governor Bill is as tone deaf as the previous Governor Bill. Maybe he should stop sending out weekend reports from the farm and start actually talking to (and listening) to teachers and parents in our schools. Meanwhile, his handpicked Education Commissioner is demonstrating that while she might appear to be doing the right things (visiting schools, listening) she has a serious comprehension problem.

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Disconnect

According to the results of a recent survey of Tennessee teachers, there’s a huge disconnect between education practitioners and our state’s policymakers.

The Tennessee Education Association released the results of a survey of more than 5000 teachers indicating solid majorities have significant concerns about TNReady as well as the state’s portfolio evaluation system used for some teachers.

Here are some key findings:

When asked if they had a choice in state testing systems for end-of-course exams in their subject area, 87 percent of high school teachers said they would choose the ACT suite of assessments. Eighty-three percent of high school teachers rejected the notion that TNReady accurately measures student knowledge and Tennessee standards. 

Ninety-eight percent of Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers want to eliminate the current portfolio system or make fundamental changes with better teacher input. Among middle school teachers, most would like to see expanded use of benchmark testing used for RTI, followed by ACT. 

The TEA also points out some legislation is moving to address teacher concerns:

One of the key bills is HB383/SB488 filed by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), which would allow districts to administer the ACT, ACT Aspire or SAT tests as an approved testing alternative in math and English language arts for high school students.

While those on the front lines educating our children are asking for a move away from TNReady, Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has said she’s committed to getting TNReady right. While some legislators are finally getting the message, it seems Schwinn has not tuned-in to the very real concerns of our state’s teachers.

It will be interesting to see if Schwinn raises objections to legislation that would move Tennessee away from a failed testing regime.

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Testing Choices

Oak Ridge is the latest school system to explore the idea of alternatives to TNReady for high school students. Specifically, members of the Oak Ridge Board of Education are discussing shifting to ACT tests.

More from the Oak Ridger:

School Board member Angi Agle said she had seen a newspaper article from Middle Tennessee that reported that another “high performing” school had requested to opt out of the TNReady test and instead use the ACT suite. While Agle did not mention the district by name, The Mount Juliet News identified Wilson County Board of Education as unanimously requesting that its district be allowed to replace TNReady with the ACT Aspire suite of assessments.

“This spurred a question. Do we want to look at that?” Agle said. She also said the Tennessee School Boards Association had requested that the Tennessee Legislature pass what she called “permissive legislation” allowing districts to choose whether to use the ACT suite, the SAT suite or the TNReady tests. Fillauer confirmed that statement.

Agle said the ACT suite is nationally recognized and “aligns with our standards.” She said some school systems fear the ACT suite is “harder,” but that did not worry her.

“I think that our students would do fine with that test because we know that we’re building toward the ACT. That’s what our teachers are doing already,” Agle said. While she said there may be reasons not to use the ACT Suite, she said “permissive legislation” would allow Oak Ridge Schools officials to choose.

Districts are suggesting a move to ACT due to persistent problems with TNReady.

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Race to the Bottom: NAEP

Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released a retrospective on Tennessee’s Race to the Top experience earlier this week. The document outlines both the process involved in applying for and winning the funding and the subsequent implementation failures by the Haslam Administration.

Pinkston notes that 2013 NAEP results boosted Haslam and his misguided education policy team. Here’s more on that:

On November 7, 2013, the Haslam administration got a public reprieve of sorts. The U.S. Department of Education announced that Tennessee had become the fastest-improving state in the history the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The results were impressive. Tennessee’s 4th-graders climbed from 46th to 37th in math, and 41st to 31st in reading. In terms of overall student growth, “we literally blew away the other states,” Haslam said during a celebratory news conference at West Wilson Middle School in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., outside of Nashville.

The governor failed to acknowledge that Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, which he initially refused to endorse, actually predicted steep gains on the Nation’s Report Card following implementation of more rigorous academic standards in the 2009-10 school year. The 2010 Race to the Top plan expressly noted: “On the NAEP, we know from experience that results are harder to shift, and that we will not likely see real gains until 2013 when students have had several years under the new standards.” Someone had a crystal ball.

While the Bredesen Administration team correctly predicted the 2013 growth, it’s also worth noting that some critics with at least a vague familiarity with statistics urged caution in getting too excited about the results. More specifically, I wrote at the time:

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.

Turns out, I was correct — not that I’m bragging, anyone with a familiarity with how statistics actually work (meaning no one at the DOE at the time) would know that this type of bragging was misplaced. Of course, urging caution based on statistical reality isn’t good for the politics of oppression, but, let’s look at what had happened by 2017, years into the Haslam Administration’s incompetent management of state education policy:

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.

All of this to say: You can’t say you’re the fastest-improving state on NAEP based on one testing cycle. You also shouldn’t make long-term policy decisions based on seemingly fabulous results in one testing cycle. Since 2013, Tennessee has doubled down on reforms with what now appears to be little positive result.

Did Haslam apologize for Candice McQueen’s failures or fire her? No. He doubled down on failed policy in spite of evidence. Students suffered through years of TNReady being not even close to ready. Now, that same Bill Haslam is poised to make a run for U.S. Senate. No thanks. We don’t need someone who can’t be honest about how his policies failed Tennessee’s kids.

 

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Race to the Bottom: Testing

Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released an analysis of the Race to the Top experience in Tennessee yesterday. The document highlights the failures of the Haslam Administration to effectively implement the program as had been envisioned.

Pinkston references testing and TNReady as among the ways Team Haslam failed our students and schools. Specifically, in Chapter 18:

TNReady, the $30-million standardized testing system a blogger once dubbed “Haslam’s Hindenburg,” still isn’t ready for prime time. A new assessment vendor, Questar, managed to deploy tests in spring 2017, but mostly in paper form versus the comprehensive online platform promised in Race to the Top seven years earlier. In a ham-handed attempt to boost students’ spirits ahead of testing season, Gov. Haslam mailed out Number Two pencils to kids across the state. The blog Tennessee Education Report derided him in a headline — “Haslam to Kids: Be Ready Even Though TN Hasn’t Been.”

In 2018, TNReady actually fared worse. Hiccups included problems with students and teachers logging into the online test as well as a severed fiber cable delivering internet service to schools. Candice McQueen, the education commissioner, even brought in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security to investigate a supposed cyber-attack. But she ended up with egg on her face again after state officials determined that Questar caused TNReady’s problems by making unauthorized changes in the testing system. Later, state auditors acknowledged that McQueen’s oversight of test administration “fell short of expectations.”

Thankfully, new Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has promised to make TNReady her top priority. If she were making students her top priority, she’d propose taking at least a year off of testing altogether and re-evaluating how Tennessee assesses student progress.

Not surprisingly, the failed Haslam education team left Schwinn a mess to clean up:

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.

Will Tennessee keep on moving in this direction? Racing to the bottom? Will we continue taking pride in our status as the “one glaring exception” among states shifting to online testing?

While lots of states are moving to online testing, one expert says Tennessee is unique:

“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.

 

Why is Tennessee in the unique position of having the worst online testing transition in the country?

The reality is that Tennessee’s online-testing mess has left everyone in a difficult position, said Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization.

“The state has not [made] stability a key priority in their testing vendors,” Aldeman said.

 

So, here we are. 2019, a new commissioner, and a huge mess. That’s just testing. As Pinkston notes, there’s much more.

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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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