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.”

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: