Testing Testing

Is Tennessee ready for TNReady? Five things to know about the state’s new standardized test

PHOTO: TN.gov
In less than ten months, Tennessee will debut a new standardized test to replace the TCAP.

This spring marks the last time Tennessee students will take the Tennesssee Comprehensive Assessment Program, fondly known as TCAP tests. Beginning next school year, the state’s standardized exam will be “TNReady,” a test being developed by North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.

Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education say the new assessment will be aligned with Tennessee classroom standards — whatever those end up being. But whether the Tennessee General Assembly decides to keep or replace the Common Core State Standards, the new test will roll out in only 10 months, when high school students on block schedules sit down for exams in November.

Here’s what we know so far about the new testing program:

1) It can be administered online or by paper. Guidelines are being drafted about which districts will use an online version of the test, and which will use paper and pencil, according to Emily Freitag, assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction, who last week updated a joint meeting of the State Board of Education and Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Several states already have moved their testing online, and Tennessee was supposed to do the same this year by administering the PARCC test, an online Common Core-aligned test with open-ended questions. However, the legislature nixed the transition last spring in a pushback to Common Core, and instead mandated Tennessee students take the multiple-choice TCAP another year. Although districts have been preparing for an online test via PARCC, concerns remain that many districts, especially in rural areas, don’t have the technology to administer it.

2) It’s “adaptable” to new standards. A common complaint about TCAP has been that it doesn’t align with the state’s new standards, which were phased in from 2010 to 2014. A big selling point of the new test is that it finally can assess if students are meeting those standards.

However, whether those standards for math and English remain in place is still up for debate – literally. The Common Core State Standards are under review, and the legislature is considering a bill that would repeal them. If that happens, there won’t be much time for tentmakers to go back to the drawing board. Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner for data and research, assured last week’s joint session that the new test will adapt to whatever standards Tennessee ends up with. “We recognize that we are in a standards review process,” Towns said. “TNReady is going to give us the flexibility to align with standards, whatever those may be at the end of that process.”

3) The writing test will become part of the English/language arts test. This week, Tennessee students sat down for their TCAP writing tests for the last time — kind of. TNReady will have a separate written component, but the score will be part of students’ English/language arts score, not separate. The writing-intensive part of TNReady will be taken in February, as the writing test is currently done. The rest of the English assessment will be administered at the end of the year.

4) All sections of TNReady will involve writing. Gone are the days of all-multiple choice tests. Even the math TNReady will require students to explain some of their answers in writing. This could help students, since they now will be able to receive partial credit for showing their work in math. They also will have to rely less on calculators during the math assessment. The English exam will have several open-ended questions, in addition to the writing section.

5) There will be math assessments for both traditional high school math — Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II — and integrated math. Last month, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools announced that it will join four other Tennessee districts teaching integrated math, which teaches the same concepts as geometry and algebra, but integrates them across three years. A TCAP for integrated math doesn’t exist, and the move to have a statewide assessment for integrated math might encourage more districts to join in that course of study.

For more background on Measurement Inc., the company developing the test, read our past coverage.

Did we answer your questions about the state’s new testing tool? Are you ready for TNReady, or do you have reservations? Share your comments below.

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

lingering debate

Drop TNReady scores from teacher evaluations, urge Shelby County leaders

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
From left: Commissioners Reginald Milton, Van Turner and David Reaves listen during a meeting in Memphis of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The governing board this week urged state lawmakers to strip TNReady scores from teacher evaluations.

Just as students have begun taking Tennessee’s new standardized test, Shelby County officials are calling on state leaders to back off of using those scores to evaluate teachers.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for Memphis schools, voted unanimously on Monday to urge  the state to use TNReady results as only a “diagnostic” tool. Currently, the board says, state scores are being used as a punitive evaluation of both teachers and students.

The board’s call gets to the heart of a debate that has lingered since a 2010 state law tied standardized test results to teacher evaluations. That was several years before TNReady was introduced last year as a new measuring stick for determining how Tennessee students — and their teachers — are doing.

TNReady testing, which began this week and continues through May 5, has intensified that debate. The new test is aligned to more rigorous academic standards that Tennessee is counting on to improve the state’s national ranking.

But Shelby County’s board is questioning whether reforms initiated under Tennessee’s 2010 First to the Top plan are working.

“While giving off the appearance of a better education, this type of teaching to the test behavior actually limits the amount of quality content in deference to test taking strategies,” the board’s resolution reads.

The board also cites “unintended consequences” to the teaching profession as nearly half of Tennessee’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Record numbers of quality teachers are leaving the teaching profession and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers due to the TN standards imposed in regards to standardized testing,” the resolution reads.

It’s true that school districts statewide struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers in some subject areas. But there’s little evidence to support that incorporating test scores in evaluations is the primary reason teachers are leaving the profession.

It’s also unlikely that Tennessee will back off of its teacher evaluation model, even as some states have recently abandoned the practice. The model is baked into reforms that the state initiated through two gubernatorial administrations to improve both teacher and student performance.


Want education equity? Make sure your teachers feel valued, say lawmakers


PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Commissioner David Reaves

Shelby County’s resolution was introduced by Commissioner David Reaves, a former Memphis school board member who says he hears a “continual outcry” from teachers and parents over high-stakes testing.

“Allow the local (school district) to assess and classify teachers and use the test results as a tool, not as a stick,” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

In Tennessee, test scores in some form count for 35 to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. TNReady scores currently count 10 percent but, as the state settles into its new test, that will gradually increase to 25 percent by 2018-19.

Classroom observations and evaluations did play a factor in retention rates for effective teachers in a 2014 study by the Tennessee Department of Education before the transition to TNReady. Where teachers reported consistent and objective classroom observations, effective teachers were more likely to stay.

State and local teacher surveys also differ on the quality of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system known as TEAM, which mostly relies on classroom observations.

In Shelby County Schools, exit surveys show issues like levels and stability of teacher pay — not test scores in their evaluations — are cited most often by teachers leaving the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the school board last month that most Shelby County teachers find the state’s evaluation system unfair, but the same majority think their own score is fair.

Another survey by the Tennessee Department of Education suggests that satisfaction with the state’s evaluation system is on the rise as teacher feedback continues to be incorporated.

The Shelby County board, which oversees funding for Tennessee’s largest district, is sending its resolution to Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, and the Tennessee General Assembly. Below is the full text: