Testing Testing

Spivey: Latest Common Core ‘repeal’ proposal a compromise

Following intense talks on Common Core between state lawmakers and Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, a compromise bill emerged this week to continue the governor’s review of the controversial academic standards, with one added step – the creation of a third committee in the process.

Under the latest proposal, members of the additional recommendation committee would be appointed by the speakers of both chambers of the legislature, as well as by the governor.

Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) amended a bill originally about drivers’ education to include the new proposal. It passed Wednesday with minimal discussion in the House Education Instruction and Programming Subcommittee.

When presenting the amended bill, Spivey said only: “This bill would repeal the Common Core Standards in Tennessee, and that’s it in a nutshell.”

However, it’s unclear how much that “new” standards adopted under this bill would differ from Tennessee’s existing Common Core State Standards.

Common Core is a set of academic benchmarks that Tennessee adopted in 2010 and began using in some classrooms in the 2012-13 school year. Criticized for reasons ranging from vagueness to testing alignment to federal overreach, some state lawmakers have sought to repeal the standards. Last fall, Haslam initiated a year-long review of the standards, with recommendations for changes to be submitted to the State Board of Education by the end of 2015.

Speaking with Chalkbeat on Thursday, Spivey said his proposal seeks to strengthen the governor’s review process. Even if the resulting standards are similar to Common Core, he said, people concerned with the origins of the standards — which Tennessee adopted along with 45 other states and the District of Columbia — should be comforted by the thoroughness of the vetting process, as well as the state’s stewardship of money already invested to implement Common Core.

Rep. Billy Spivey
Rep. Billy Spivey

“This bill probably isn’t going to make anybody extremely happy, but I think everybody can walk away with some measure of happiness, because it creates a very high college and career standard for Tennessee students, and it does it in a matter that’s not so fast that the teachers are knocked off of their heels again,” Spivey said.

Spivey’s proposal differs from the governor’s only in its official break with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers – the organizations out of which the Common Core was born – and an added review committee, with members not only appointed by the governor, but also by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

Haslam’s current review includes two eight-person committees of educators from across the state, and three advisory teams of educators that work under those committees. Members of these panels were appointed by the State Board of Education.

Spivey said adding the speakers’ appointments to the new committee would ensure a fairer process. He said he trusts the speakers to select members knowledgeable about education. “We obviously trust the leadership we have, or we wouldn’t have placed the gavels with them,” he said. “They’re very capable of finding people relevant to the job at hand.”

Spivey, along with Rep. John Forgety (R-Athens), previously had backed off a bill to repeal the Common Core – which included a review process separate from the governor’s – because of its high cost.

The governor launched the state’s review in response to growing concern about the standards in Tennessee, which mirrors controversy about them nationwide. Many critics charge that the standards were imposed by the federal government, although they in fact resulted from a collaborative effort among states.

Advocacy groups supporting the Common Core and the governor’s review say Spivey’s new proposal isn’t ideal, but that it’s better than other bills filed this session that would outright repeal the Common Core. None of the other proposals have been scheduled for consideration this legislative session.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

“House Bill 1035, as amended, is the result of ongoing conversations about how best to review and improve Tennessee’s academic standards in a way that doesn’t create confusion in the classroom, and that supports student success,” said Tennesseans for Students Success, an advocacy group with ties to Haslam, in a statement released onWednesday. “Is it perfect? No. But, while we still do not believe this bill is necessary, we’re encouraged that it appears to codify the current review process, respects varying points of view, and most importantly avoids disrupting the progress being made in Tennessee’s classrooms.”

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.