testing turn

Much-criticized teacher literacy test could be on the chopping block next month

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indianapolis Public Schools picked a new model for teacher observations.

New York is poised to make it significantly easier to become a teacher — though their plans are on ice for a month.

The state’s education policymakers were set to vote on a major change to teacher certification requirements on Monday that would have walked back a controversial effort to make the teaching profession more selective. Winter weather won out, canceling the meeting.

The votes may happen in March but education department officials said it’s too early to have a finalized agenda. Here’s what we know:

Big changes to teacher certifications

One change would eliminate the test designed to measure prospective teachers’ reading and writing ability, known as the Academic Literacy Skills Test. The Regents were also set to discuss changes to the edTPA exam, which requires prospective teachers to videotape their lessons. Under the new plan, prospective teachers who barely failed the edTPA exam could still get certified after a review of factors like recommendations and their grade point averages.

Both tests were added to the requirements to become a teacher in New York during a process to overhaul teacher preparation that started in 2009. At the time, Regents said they hoped more rigorous exams focused on literacy and the real-life demands of the teaching profession would help make sure students had well-qualified educators.

But it hasn’t been an easy transition for potential educators, or for the schools that prepare them. Only 77 percent of aspiring teachers have passed the edTPA since its rollout in New York, prompting a safety-net option that allowed candidates to take an easier, paper-based exam.

And not everyone has been convinced that the new tests offer valuable feedback or are worth the costs. The literacy test has even faced legal challenges, since black and Hispanic candidates have passed the test in lower numbers. In 2013-14, only 48 percent of aspiring black teachers and 56 percent of aspiring Hispanic teachers passed the exam, compared to 75 percent of prospective white teachers.

That has prompted concern that trying to solve one problem created others, keeping more teachers of color out of classrooms just as the state is trying to boost those numbers.

Those concerns led the Regents to create a task force of education officials and experts, offered recommendations for sweeping changes at the January Regents meeting.

The literacy test is duplicative and unnecessary, said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees, and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force.

“There are serious problems with the content and format of the ALST,” Dangler said. “It’s a poorly constructed exam.”

The review process for students who just miss the edTPA passing score would apply to those have at least a 3.0 GPA, and pass other required exams. A committee would then review additional material, like teacher recommendations, to determine if the prospective educator should earn a certification. That change would go out for public comment and is likely to come before the board for a vote in June, according to board materials.

Those materials list a number of other potential changes related to the edTPA, including convening a committee to rethink the passing score — which could mean lowering it. The state wants a new cut score by 2017, according to Monday’s materials.

More ways to earn a diploma

The Regents were also set to pave the way for high school students to swap a foreign language test for their final Regents exam required to graduate.

Specifically, they were set to approve the criteria they will use to decide which foreign language exams will count as alternative graduation exams. That puts the state in a position to allow some students to use one of those exams to graduate in just a few months. New York has begun allowing students to swap art, career and technical skills, and a skills certificate for their fifth Regents exam.

Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children, says she expects the state will start by approving nationally recognized foreign language tests, such as Advanced Placement exams.

The news of the day

The Regents were also set to take on a few hot topics, such as the recently released graduation rates and the governor’s controversial state aid proposal. To what extent do Regents think the bump in statewide graduation rates have to do with changes the state made to graduation requirements? Were the Regents planning to take a stand against Cuomo’s proposal to change the way the state funds high-needs schools?

We may not know until March.

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.