Actually Ready

As a few districts around the state push for a pause on TNReady while others look for ways to move beyond the test, the words of a teacher during the testing failure last year seem incredibly relevant:

I want all the things that the Tennessee Department of Education says that it wants from TNReady. But what I do not want is a test that disrupts learning instead of measuring it.

I don’t want to build my students up for a test that doesn’t happen when and how we’ve prepared for it to happen. I do not want to rush my students into a computer lab and be sure they’re all prepared only to sit and wait for 20 minutes to log in, or to end up leaving the lab without testing because the system is down.

I don’t want to start another sentence in my classroom with, “I know we were supposed to test today, but …”

And:

I do not want to hear excuses or listen to anyone insist that these problems do not interfere with the validity of the results. I do not want these results factored into a number used to quantify my effect as a teacher.

But all of that has happened. I also understand that testing is federally mandated, and I agree that tests can provide important feedback. So here’s what I do want: A test that is reliable. A test that is developmentally appropriate in length and respectful of the instructional time students lose to testing. A test that provides timely and detailed data.

And I want my students to take that test, and for my colleagues and I to be held accountable for it, only once it’s actually, truly, ready.

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As Governor Haslam continues his listening tour and the candidates for Governor move forward with their campaigns, the words of our teachers deserve attention.

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Affirmed

The Maury County School Board by a 10-1 vote affirmed the position of Director of Schools Chris Marczak who has called for a halt to TNReady this year and a move to replace the state exam with the ACT suite of assessments.

The Columbia Daily Herald reports:

During the board’s regular meeting this week, representatives voted 10-1 to send a letter calling for the halt of TNReady testing. Former school board chairman David Bates cast the sole dissenting vote.

The letter, penned by Maury County Public Schools Superintendent Chris Marczak, asks the state to end TNReady testing, requests schools be held harmless in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVASS) and calls for the ACT to be made the standardized testing tool for high school juniors and seniors by the year 2020.

Marczak called the vote an answer to an ongoing rally cry in Maury County.

“This is a huge affirmation for our educators who are working to do the best for our students,” Marczak told The Daily Herald. “To me, it is an affirmation for the community and the families and the students. I want to commend the school board for being forward thinking. They really took a stance and I am really impressed with their leadership.”

The School Board’s position drew immediate praise from the Maury County Education Association, the local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association:

“After years of failure, confidence and trust in the state testing system is at an all-time low,” the statement reads. “There are calls to suspend testing completely and allow a reset, recognizing an entire generation of students have known nothing but glitches and disappointment.”

The TNReady failures have recently been the subject of an exchange of letters among directors, lawmakers, and Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen.

Additionally, Governor Bill Haslam and McQueen are currently on a statewide tour talking to invited guests about TNReady.

Stay tuned to see if additional districts join Maury County in pushing for a reset on testing and, ultimately, a move to a different test altogether.

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Students Will Suffer

Knox County School Board member Jennifer Owen offers an inside view of how Governor Haslam’s “listening tour” went down in Knoxville.

Her conclusion gets to the heart of why Tennessee education policy is where it is today:

While some of our legislators, in this ELECTION SEASON, are suddenly declaring that they disagree with all of this, we know that they have not stopped it, after EIGHT YEARS.  And if they haven’t stopped this after EIGHT YEARS, they sure as hell aren’t going to stop it just because there is a new governor in town.

As long as we keep these legislators, Tennessee students will continue to suffer, while parents, teachers, and the public are lied to, regarding trumped up visions of “successes” used to make the governor look like he has actually done something while in office.

If we keep doing the same thing, we’ll keep getting the same results. If we keep sending lawmakers to Nashville who support TNReady or get behind minor changes around the edges, we won’t see anything new in 2019 or beyond.

Owen was in the meeting in Knoxville and her full description of how it went down is worth a read.

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Scheduling Matters

Governor Bill Haslam held his first of six TNReady listening meetings in Knoxville last week. While the tour was initially billed as an open discussion of challenges and ways to improve the state test, the timing of the event and an approved guest list raised questions about the event.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports Haslam saying he did not intend to keep anyone out of the meeting, despite holding it at 3:00 PM when most teachers in Knox County are still required to be at work.

Knox County School Board Chair Patty Bounds noted:

“I was like, I can’t even imagine what they’re thinking or if they’re that out of touch,” Bounds said. “(Because of their) contract teachers can’t leave their building until 3:15 and for middle and high school, it’s later than that.”

Bounds questioned how the state could rationalize hand-picking the teachers allowed in the meeting Friday if they wanted a true listening tour.

The Directors of Schools in Nashville and Memphis have indicated support for pausing TNReady while the state transitions to a new Governor. This would allow the new Commissioner of Education time to digest feedback and work with a testing vendor to improve delivery.

In a similar vein, the Director of Schools in Maury County has suggested moving to the ACT suite of assessments and Wilson County is said to be exploring legislative options to move beyond the state-mandated test.

Despite criticism over the timing and invitation list for his first listening tour stop, Haslam’s second stop will be at Soddy-Daisy High School in Hamilton County on Tuesday, August 28th at 3:30 PM.

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


 

When Gov Comes to Town

The first stop on Governor Bill Haslam’s TNReady “listening tour” is today at 3:00 PM local time at Halls Elementary School in Knoxville.

In the press release announcing the tour, the goals were stated as:

1. Engage in an open conversation about assessment and ways to improve administration;
2. Gather feedback that can inform a smooth delivery of state assessments this school year and beyond, including feedback on the selection of the state’s next assessment partner to be chosen later this school year;
3. Discuss how to better provide schools, educators, parents and students with meaningful and timely results from assessments; and
4. Distinguish assessment content from delivery in an effort to focus on the value assessments can provide.

Sounds great, right? An open conversation, gathering feedback, hearing from educators and parents about what’s needed to improve?

It might be of some value IF it were truly an open conversation. Here’s the problem: The event is at 3:00 PM when school is in session for many teachers in Knox County. That means, unless you teach at Halls, you likely can’t get there in time (it ends at 4:30) to weigh-in with your feedback.

At least the teachers and staff at Halls will be able to have a voice, right?

Nope. The principal at Halls and teachers there were told the event was “invitation only.” The Governor and Commissioner of Education have already decided who will be doing the talking.

Here’s more from a report on the ground describing what’s going down ahead of the PR event:

This is what my principal had to do today:

1)Spend his time going through the building with the Governor’s security detail instead of dealing with students.
2) Tell his teachers that they could not attend the TN Ready event.
3)Tell his teachers how to dress tomorrow
4) Have teachers….. who can’t attend (neither can he, evidently) set up tables and chairs for the attendees after school
5) Tell teachers that students could not use the library all day tomorrow (there goes effective plan time for 6 teachers)
6) Figure out a plan that would disrupt our dismissal as little as possible, since they insist on parking in the lot where parents circle around for the car rider line

So, Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen are coming to town with a pre-approved guest list and not, in fact, engaging in “an open conversation about assessment.”

 

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Listen With Your Ears

Today, Governor Bill Haslam announced a statewide “listening tour” to hear from educators about the challenges with TNReady and ways to make improvements going forward.

While I applaud the effort to listen to educators, it seems to be coming a little too late. It also seems the end goal has already been decided: Keep TNReady.

Interestingly, Commissioner McQueen has convened a “testing task force” several times during the years of TNReady. So far, no real improvements have come from these meetings.

It’s quite likely the educators on the front lines have some useful ideas about how to improve assessment in our state and I’m hopeful the next Governor will take those ideas into account.

It’s also worth noting that true listening requires significant effort and investment. As noted in the press release announcing the tour, preparation and implementation of this year’s TNReady will continue while the tour is being conducted.

Some have suggested hitting the pause button on TNReady this year and spending the year listening and working to improve assessment for the 2019-2020 school year. This would give the next Governor time to digest recommendations and move forward with improvements.

Here’s another interesting statement from the release:

“Tennessee’s unprecedented improvement in education is the result of high academic standards and an assessment that measures knowledge of those standards,” Haslam said. “Without aligned assessments, we don’t know where our students stand and where we need to improve. We finally have a test that is aligned to Tennessee’s strong academic standards, and I don’t want recent assessment delivery issues to cause us to lose sight of why we have these tests in the first place. Delivering the test without disruption is essential and we must get it right. I am confident this listening tour and process will inform the critical work ahead of us.”

The “unprecedented improvement” Haslam mentions is the whole “fastest-improving” line he so often uses in reference to the 2013 NAEP results. Of course, that happened BEFORE a single administration of TNReady. In fact, TNReady hadn’t even been invented at that point. Since 2013, Tennessee’s NAEP scores have (predictably) leveled off a bit.

In other words, if, as Haslam suggests, an aligned assessment (even one never successfully administered) is the key to “unprecedented” improvements for students, our test must not be that great. Or, maybe having an aligned assessment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

Let me go on record as saying I think some form of assessment of student progress is useful. I also believe (as my past writing indicates) that attaching student grades or teacher evaluations to such an assessment is of dubious value.

I appreciate what Governor Haslam is trying to do with this listening tour. While I certainly have some ideas about alternatives to the current testing regime, I think policymakers should take some time and just listen. Listen to the professionals — the teachers in the classrooms who are with students each and every day. Don’t listen with the outcome in mind, don’t listen while also building an implementation process for this year, just listen.

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Perspective

Today, the Tennessee Department of Education released district and school scores from this past year’s TNReady.

Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney puts the release in perspective:

Today’s release of value-added and achievement data punctuates last year’s statewide assessment challenges. We have made note of the state’s report. Our school community remains focused on providing WCS students with a balanced educational experience which promotes academics, athletics, and the arts.

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


 

Battle Lines Being Drawn

Last week, the School Superintendents in Memphis and Nashville wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen calling for a pause in TNReady. The letter indicated the leaders had “no confidence” in TNReady. Following the letter, the Knox County School Board voted 8-1 to send a letter to Governor Haslam stating they had “no confidence” in the Department of Education. Later that week, the Director of Schools in Maury County said he agreed with the idea of pausing TNReady and suggested moving to the ACT suite of assessments.

Today, Commissioner McQueen issued a response. According to Chalkbeat, her response indicates that pausing TNReady would be “illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

McQueen cites federal and state law requiring test administration. Here’s the deal: The entity that determines the penalty for violating state law regarding testing is the Department of Education. The penalty they can use is withholding BEP funds. This is the threat they used back in 2016 to force districts to back down on threats to halt testing then.

Let’s be clear: The Tennessee Department of Education is the enforcer of the state testing mandate. The DOE could refuse to penalize districts who paused testing OR the DOE could take the suggestion made by Dorsey Hopson of Memphis and Shawn Joseph of Nashville and just hit the pause button for this year and work toward an effective administration of testing for 2019-20.

Next, McQueen cites federal law. I’ve written about why this is misguided. Here’s more:

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.

That’s right, the federal government tends to leave decisions regarding punishment up to the states. Of course, Tennessee could also request a 1-year waiver of ESSA requirements in order to further clarify the need to get testing right. In short, the only problem now is McQueen’s unwillingness to admit failure and take aggressive steps to make improvement.

McQueen also says that halting testing is “inconsistent” with Tennessee values.

While in McQueen’s world, halting testing is inconsistent with our state’s values, lying about why testing isn’t working is apparently perfectly fine. Oh, and playing a game with testing vendors? No problem!

McQueen claims that we need the tests to help identify gaps in education delivery in traditionally under-served students. Yes, having a working annual assessment can be a helpful tool in identifying those gaps. But, when the test doesn’t work — when students get the wrong test, when the testing climate is not consistent — then we get results that are unreliable. That helps no one.

What should be consistent with Tennessee values is taking the time to get testing right. That means ensuring it’s not disruptive to the instruction process and the results are useful and returned to students, teachers, and parents in a timely fashion.

Will McQueen’s letter deter other district leaders from speaking out on TNReady? Will there be additional fallout from the DOE’s failure to effectively administer Pre-K/K portfolios?

Stay tuned.

 

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


 

Blood in the Water

The Director of Schools in Maury County has joined those in Memphis and Nashville in calling for a pause in TNReady as a result of repeated problems with the testing platform.

The Columbia Daily Herald reports Maury County Director of Schools Chris Marczak said he agrees with the letter sent by Dorsey Hopson of Memphis and Shawn Joseph of Nashville. Marczak offered an alternative:

“I believe it would be best for us to focus solely on the ACT and align ourselves with outcomes that can affect students’ college acceptance and scholarship ability,” Marczak said.

Maury County district leadership has indicated the results from this year’s botched test administration are of limited value:

“Due to the issues with testing, we will not be adding TNReady/EOC data to the Keys’ scorecards for either the district or the school levels when they eventually come in,” Marczak said in an email sent to staff in July. “In light of the numerous testing issues, please know that the results of the assessments will be used to inform conversation only. These are the conversations we will have with principals and the principals will have with teachers/staffs.”

In response to the ongoing testing issues, Marczak shared accounts of students completing 75-minute long examinations in 10 minutes. When reviewing the examinations, Marczak said the district had over 600 missing scores. Questar, the contractor hired by the state to administer the test, reported that 600 individual assessments were incomplete.

Despite the growing concern over the inability to effectively administer the TNReady test, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen has said the test is still an important tool:

TNReady serves as a vital feedback loop for teachers, parents, and administrators to tell us where we are, and the results inform what steps we need to take to help all students and schools succeed.”

TNReady might be an important feedback loop if it ever worked the way it was intended. But it hasn’t. Instead, it’s been fraught with problems since the beginning. Now, education leaders are standing up and speaking out.

The push to pause TNReady and possibly move forward with a different measure comes at the same time the TDOE is being taken to task for a failure to properly execute Pre-K/Kindergarten portfolios. Knox County’s School Board last night voted to send a message that they have “no confidence” in the portfolio process or in the TDOE.

The push against TNReady from key district leaders figures to make the test and overall administration of the Department of Education a key issue in the 2018 gubernatorial and state legislative elections.

 

 

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


 

“No Confidence” in TNReady

Just days after members of the Knox County School Board took the Tennessee Department of Education to task for “incompetence” and an “abject failure” to measure student achievement or teacher performance, the Directors of the state’s two largest school districts, Nashville and Memphis, sent a letter to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Governor Bill Haslam stating they had “no confidence” in TNReady and asking the state to pause the test.

The letter, signed by Nashville’s Shawn Joseph and Shelby County’s Dorsey Hopson, says in part:

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide, collaborative conversation.”

The two leaders, whose districts represent 20 percent of all students in Tennessee, note:

“We are challenged to explain to teachers, parents, and students why they must accept the results of a test that has not been effectively deployed.”

The language from these two directors is the strongest yet from any district and the first to call for an outright stop to administration of the TNReady test while the state explores other options. Johnson City’s school board sent a proposal asking for a significant reduction in testing while Wilson County is exploring the possibility of administering a different test altogether. At the same time, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney expressed concern about the poor administration of this year’s test.

It seems clear there is growing concern among educators about the continued use of TNReady. As Joseph and Hopson note, taxpayer resources have been invested in a test that is poorly implemented and yields suspect results. Taking their suggestion of a pause could give the state and a new Governor and Education Commissioner time to actually develop a process for administering an aligned assessment that does not disrupt instruction and does return useful, meaningful results to teachers, parents, and students.

Here’s the letter:

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