Shifting strategy

Here’s Tennessee’s new game plan for standardized testing next year

PHOTO: Sarah Garland
Under the Tennessee Department of Education's testing timeline for 2016-17, students will be able to take practice tests online beginning in early November, while end-of-year assessments will be in the spring.

Next spring, Tennessee’s third-graders will spend at least three and half hours less on end-of-year standardized tests.

That’s among the concrete details provided by the State Department of Education in a lengthy Q&A Thursday about next year’s assessments in Tennessee.

Department leaders also announced they have finalized the state’s contract with Questar, the Minnesota-based company introduced last week as Tennessee’s new test maker after firing its previous vendor in April.

In light of this spring’s tumultuous testing period, which included canceling tests altogether for grades 3-8, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the department is presenting as many details as possible about the timeline and structure of the next year’s tests, with the hopes of “changing the tone around assessment” in Tennessee.

“We want to be responsive to the feedback we hear. … We continue to apologize for last year’s experience. Our goal is to make this positive experience,” she said during a conference call with district officials, news media, and Questar CEO Jamie Candee.

Candee spoke briefly about how Questar plans to build trust in Tennessee and addressed concerns about the short timeline the testing company has to deliver assessments. Fall high school testing is scheduled to start Nov. 28.

“We know the responsibility we have to your educators and students is a very important one,” Candee said. “We are confident (we can) deliver (the assessments) under your timeline.”

Here are some of the highlights released Thursday. The department’s full Q&A on next year’s test is available here.

Students will spend less time taking standardized tests, and testing will be confined to the end of the school year.

End-of-year testing will be reduced by 30 percent, addressing complaints of overtesting from parents and loss of instructional time from teachers.

State officials announced in April that Part I of the math test will be dropped. Now  it’s dropping Part I for all four subjects, meaning almost all TCAP testing will occur in late April and early May, unlike last year when students also tested in February and March. During that window, students will take the tests in a series of shorter parts, some as short as 30 minutes, so they can fit into regular classroom periods.

Teachers will have planning materials next week — and they won’t look that different from last year’s.

Teachers have been waiting longer than usual for “blueprints” that summarize what will be on each assessments, so they can plan their school year which begins in early August.

The blueprints will be available next week, said Tammy Shelton, the department’s director of content and resources. The material and standards assessed will be similar to last year’s, she said, though the blueprints will reflect the new structure.  Practice test questions will be available in August, and students will be able to take practice tests online beginning in early November.

For the most part, tests will be taken with pencil and paper, but some high schools might choose to test their students online.

After last year’s testing experience, in which the online platform buckled on the first day of testing, department officials are easing into things. High schools may have the option to take the test online this year, but only if Questar’s testing platform demonstrates “early proof of successful online administration” in Tennessee schools during practice runs.

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.