Testing Testing

Manhattan principals join protest against this year’s state reading test

Manhattan principals are joining their colleagues in Brooklyn in protesting the quality of this year’s state English language arts exam, which students in elementary and middle school took last week.

Two Brooklyn schools held rallies against the tests on Friday. Now, principals in District 2, which includes the Upper East Side and most of Manhattan below 59th Street, are circulating a letter that invites families to rallies at their schools at the end of the week, promising a “somewhat larger demonstration” before school on Friday.

The letter describes principals’ disappointment after realizing that the concerns that educators and families raised last year about the state’s Common Core-aligned tests were not fully addressed in this year’s exams.

“As school leaders, we supported teachers in ensuring that students and families kept the tests in perspective — they were important, but by no means the ultimate measure of who they are as readers, students, or human beings. We encouraged them to be optimistic, and did our best to do the same,” the principals write. “Frankly, many of us were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests and stood by helplessly while kids struggled to determine best answers, distorting much of what we’d taught them about effective reading skills and strategies and forgoing deep comprehension for something quite different.”

The educator-led movement comes in contrast to parent protest that reached an apex just before the exams, when hundreds of parents across the city said they were opting their children out of the tests. Few families opted out in District 2, which the principals said had been the case because they “had high hopes, and, perhaps mistakenly, assured families that this year’s exam would reflect the feedback test makers and state officials had received from educators and families.”

The complete letter being distributed by principals in District 2 is below. An early version that Chalkbeat received was signed by Adele Schroeter, principal of P.S. 59, and Lisa Ripperger, principal of P.S. 234, who together proposed a “somewhat larger demonstration” than took place in Brooklyn last week.

Community Action: Join Us in Speaking Out Regarding the NYS English Language Arts Exam

Friday, April 11th, at District 2 Schools

Dear District 2 Families,

Community School District 2 represents a richly diverse group of school communities and it is not often these days that we have an opportunity to join in a shared effort.  Last week, and for several weeks prior, every one of our upper grade classrooms devoted hours of instructional time, vast human resources, and a tremendous amount of effort to preparing students to do well on the NYS ELA exams and, ultimately, to administering them.  This week, a number of teachers will miss an entire week of instruction to score these exams. Few District 2 students opted out, in part because we had high hopes, and, perhaps mistakenly, assured families that this year’s exam would reflect the feedback test makers and state officials had received from educators and families regarding the design of the test following last year’s administration.  Our students worked extremely hard and did their very best.  As school leaders, we supported teachers in ensuring that students and families kept the tests in perspective – they were important, but by no means the ultimate measure of who they are as readers, students, or human beings. We encouraged them to be optimistic, and did our best to do the same.  Frankly, many of us were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests and stood by helplessly while kids struggled to determine best answers, distorting much of what we’d taught them about effective reading skills and strategies and forgoing deep comprehension for something quite different.

Last Friday morning, Liz Phillips, the principal of PS321 in Brooklyn, led her staff and her parent community in a demonstration objecting, not to testing or accountability, but to these tests in particular and, importantly, to their high stakes nature and the policy of refusing to release other than a small percentage of the questions.  500 staff and parents participated.

By Friday evening officials were dismissing the importance of their statement, claiming that Liz and her community represented only a tiny percentage of those affected, implying that the rest of us were satisfied.  Given the terribly high stakes of these tests, for schools, for teachers and for kids, and the enormous amount of human, intellectual and financial resources that have been devoted to them, test makers should be prepared to stand by them and to allow them to undergo close scrutiny.

District 2 schools will be holding a district wide demonstration, making sure our thoughts on this are loud and clear and making it more difficult to dismiss the efforts of one school.  On Friday morning, April 11th, at 8:00am, we invite our families and staff to join District 2 schools in speaking out, expressing our deep dissatisfaction with the 2014 NYS ELA exam. Among the concerns shared by many schools are the following: The tests seem not to be particularly well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and ambiguous; the tests themselves are embargoed and only a handful of questions will be released next year; teachers are not permitted to use the questions or the results to inform their teaching; students and families receive little or no specific feedback; this year, there were product placements (i.e., Nike, Barbie) woven throughout the exam. We are inviting you and your family to join together as a school community in this action, helping to ensure that officials are not left to wonder whether or not we were satisfied.

Yours truly,
District 2 Principals

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.


Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come


But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.