the long view

Why this year’s failed TNReady test leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Tennessee’s decision to cancel standardized testing this year amid sweeping snafus sent shockwaves across the state’s education system this spring.

But the long-term consequences could be more significant — and wide-reaching.

As the state finalizes a contract with a new testing company to replace the one it fired this spring, Tennessee’s biggest challenge now might be to regain the trust of educators, students and parents. Its new measuring stick for math and English, called TNReady, had been positioned as the centerpiece of a policy agenda that would make Tennessee a leader in student achievement after decades of lagging.

“As an educator, I’ve lost confidence in the ability of Tennessee to successfully execute a test on the state level,” said seventh-grade social studies teacher Mitch Orr, who works at STEM Prep Academy in Nashville.

Outside of the state, observers who once saw promise in Tennessee’s ambitious education agenda now see a trail of red flags along the road to improve student achievement.

“The shine is off the apple when it comes to Tennessee education reform,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute and a proponent of much of the state’s education improvement agenda. “A lot of us watching this from afar are nervous for Tennessee.”

State education officials acknowledge the doubt from onlookers, even as they insist that Tennessee’s vaunted accountability system can recover from the setbacks.

“We’re having to certainly build that trust back, not only with educators but with the general public,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

"The shine is off the apple when it comes to Tennessee education reform."Michael Petrilli, Thomas Fordham Institute

One major challenge is that the absence of test scores complicates the federal requirement for the state to explain how different groups of students are doing. That requirement, in place since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, is one of the holdovers in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which passed last fall.

“It’s a problem,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King said in May when asked how Tennessee’s test cancellation could impact the tracking of achievement gaps and education equities, a key purpose of its accountability system. He said the state would have to dig into its data to find other ways to assess whether all students are improving, or just some groups of them.

Tennessee State Board of Education members have flagged this year’s lack of data as a serious problem — albeit one for which they don’t know the solution. “That data tells us something very important and real,” says Sara Heyburn, the board’s executive director. “It helps us understand where our achievement gaps are. … Equity really rests on having that data.”

Test scores are also at the heart of the state’s school turnaround efforts. The state-run Achievement School District uses them to decide which schools to shutter and reopen as charter schools, and urban districts use them to decide which schools should receive extra resources as part of their “innovation zones.” These school improvement efforts have been closely watched, and in some cases, replicated in other states.

In April, the Achievement School District announced it will not take over more schools in 2017-18 because of the testing travails. And since decisions about state intervention are based on three years of data, it’s unclear how such decisions will be made in 2018 and 2019, either.

“The [testing] issues compromised the quality of that data,” said Tim Fields, a national expert on school turnaround work with the think tank Public Impact. “That’s a challenge in many respects.”

"We’re having to certainly build that trust back, not only with educators but with the general public."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

Then in May, the State Board of Education eliminated the accountability provisions it had just passed last year. That’s because this year’s test scores will not be available to evaluate a large swath of teachers or measure achievement gaps at most elementary and middle schools.

Instead, the state is asking districts to fulfill its mandate to evaluate teachers using student performance by counting last year’s test score growth scores for more, and by selecting an available option for student performance from a preset menu.

In the absence of school-wide test scores, many elementary and middle school teachers are being rated based in part on their district’s high school data, such as graduation rates — an important metric but one that does not try to isolate their impact.

“While we do affect graduation rates as an elementary school, I definitely think our test scores give a truer picture,” said Dana Lester, an elementary school librarian in Rutherford County, who like many of her colleagues opted to use graduation rates in her evaluation. “But we really didn’t have a choice.”

Department officials, while disappointed and apologetic about the testing problems, insist that the state’s accountability system is flexible enough to absorb this year’s setbacks.

“It is not being upended,” McQueen said. “We have so many things that can still provide us information.” She cited a range of items that the state measures, including high school test scores and absenteeism rates, as possible metrics for assessing schools this year.

“[The data] will just look different than what we’ve been able to provide for the last few years,” she said.

Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray says that, for educators, the question now is how and if the state will reevaluate the role of standardized tests as a result of this year’s setbacks. That answer might come soon as the state begins conversations about complying with the new federal education law ESSA, which requires an array of data besides test scores to be used for accountability purposes. Last year, the state added more measures beyond testing to its district accountability system, signaling a slight shift in the importance of testing. Petrilli, of the Fordham Institute, predicts that states will move away from using test scores to evaluate teachers.

"There is a phenomenal opportunity ... to take this, go back to the beginning, and emerge as a leader in education."Mitch Orr, Nashville teacher

While frustrated as a teacher, Mitch Orr views Tennessee’s shakeup in accountability as a chance to make improvements.

“There is a phenomenal opportunity that the state has to take this, go back to the beginning, and emerge as a leader in education,” he said.

In the meantime, Tennessee still has a system based entirely on end-of-year test data that won’t work until a test is entirely rolled out.

“People know when you’re shifting assessments, you’re going to have to wait a year to see growth — so now to put that off more, it’s just another year until you have that information at scale,” said Sonja Santelises, outgoing vice president at the Washington-based think tank Education Trust and incoming superintendent of Baltimore City Schools, who has worked closely with Tennessee educators.

“It means one more year of just kind of paddling. You lose momentum.”

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.

 

deja vu

Last year, Ritz’s computer-based testing plan was largely dismissed. Today, McCormick adopted part of it as her own.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Glenda Ritz and Jennifer McCormick debated in Fort Wayne during the 2016 campaign this past fall.

Although she wasn’t on board with former-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s entire testing plan during last year’s campaign, current Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick today expressed support for a computer-based test format Ritz lobbied hard for during her last year in office.

These “computer-adaptive” exams adjust the difficulty-level of questions as kids get right or wrong answers. McCormick explained the format to lawmakers today when she testified on the “ILEARN” proposal that could replace the state’s unpopular ISTEP exam if it becomes law.

Computer-adaptive technology, she said, allows tests to be more tailored around the student. Test experts who spoke to Indiana policymakers this past summer have said the tests also generally take less time than “fixed-form” tests like the current ISTEP and could result in quicker turnaround of results.

During the summer, members of a state commission charged with figuring out what Indiana’s new testing system could look like largely argued against this testing format, including the bill’s author, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. At the time, he said he was concerned about investing in a technology-heavy plan when much of the state struggles to get reliable internet and computer access. Today, Behning didn’t speak against the concept.

Overall, McCormick was supportive of House Bill 1003, but she pointed out a few areas that she’d like to see altered. More than anything, she seemed adamant that Indiana get out of the test-writing business, which has caused Hoosiers years of ISTEP-related headaches.

Read: Getting rid of Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost

“Indiana has had many years to prove we are not good test-builders,” McCormick told the Senate Education Committee today. “To continue down that path, I feel, is not very responsible.”

The proposed testing system comes primarily from the recommendations of the state commission. The biggest changes would be structural: The bill would have the test given in one block of time at the end of year rather than in the winter and spring. The state would go back to requiring end-of-course assessments in high school English, Algebra I and science.

The bill doesn’t spell out if the test must be Indiana-specific or off-the-shelf, and McCormick suggested the state buy questions from existing vendors for the computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8, which would have to be aligned with state standards.

For high school, McCormick reiterated her support for using the SAT and suggested making the proposal’s end-of-course assessments optional.

The ILEARN plan, if passed into law, would be given for the first time in 2019.

“Spring of 2019 is a more realistic timeline no matter how painful it is for all of us.” McCormick said. “We could do it for (2018), but it might not be pretty. We tried that before as a state, and we couldn’t get it right.”

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