Doing the math

Trying to sort out Tennessee’s new math standards? These educators are doing it for you.

As mathematics director for Tennessee’s second largest school district, David Williams faced down several daunting tasks over the summer.

The Nashville educator had to figure out how to deal with the aftermath of the state’s cancellation of its end-of-year test, and the accompanying lack of data. He had to wade through Tennessee’s new math standards and how to train teachers on the differences. And then there’s the perennial challenge of making education equitable, with all kids having access to rigorous coursework.

Williams soon realized there was no reason to figure it out on his own. His counterparts across the state have the same challenges, he figured, so why not work together?

In August, Williams convened a group of math coordinators and instructional coaches from nearby districts to form the Mid-Cumberland Math Consortium, a kind of support group for educators working through common challenges with math instruction. Leaders from Cheatham, Dickson, Rutherford, Williamson and Wilson counties showed up to the first meeting.

“We’re all dealing with the same issues,” explained Williams, now interim director of curriculum and instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But he didn’t want the group to be all talk. “There are a lot of groups that just talk. I wanted products,” he said.

So the group took on the task of creating grade-by-grade guides to help teachers tackle the state’s new math standards, which replace the Common Core State Standards and will go into effect next school year.

There are hundreds of standards that identify what students should know at the end of each grade. For any one district, highlighting the changes would have been a huge task. But consortium members divided them up and have spent the last few months collaborating via Google Docs to create a color coded guide: green for additional standards, red for those removed, and orange when the wording changed.

The guides are meant to save teachers time so they can focus on adjusting their teaching to the changes. They also will help district officials design professional development programs.

The State Department of Education isn’t developing similar guides, but enthusiastically supports the work of the consortium and similar collaborations, said spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Unlike the last time Tennessee switched math standards in 2011, the changes for next year aren’t drastic because the revision committee used the Common Core as a foundation rather than starting from scratch. That makes the differences in this transition more subtle, but no less substantive, according to Williams.

"Some of the revisions are so minute that if you don’t pay attention to the detail, you might miss it."David Williams, Metro Nashville Public Schools

“Some of the revisions are so minute that if you don’t pay attention to the detail, you might miss it,” he said. “If you don’t have some document telling you (what’s) new, it won’t be in your curricular materials; it won’t be in your (professional development).”

Consortium members have brought different levels of grassroots expertise to the project. Joseph Jones, mathematics coordinator for Cheatham County Schools, chaired Tennessee’s standards review committee for math and brought a wealth of knowledge and documents to help create the guides. He’s also helping the state develop professional development opportunities around the new standards, which means he can help districts avoid redundancies. And Williams served as the math coordinator for the entire state for three years, until 2015.

“With this group, it’s a benefit to all of us, that we can have each other’s insights, that we have different information from each other … so we can all move forward more efficiently,” he said.

The consortium will meet again in November and plans to finalize its guides. But what’s next on their agenda, neither Williams or Jones can say.

“We’re just a bunch of like-minded math leaders discussing issues,” Jones said. “I can bounce ideas off of people I respect quite a bit.”

Social studies switch

At 11th hour, lawmakers mandate a whole semester of Tennessee history, but don’t specify where it will fit

PHOTO: Malia, Flickr

Tennessee students will have to take a whole semester of state history after all — but no one knows in what grade.

In the waning hours of the legislative session, the House this week approved the change, only days after its sponsor had said he was going to wait until 2018 to hash out the details. The Senate already had passed the measure, which does not specify the grade level for the course.

Now, the state will have to adjust social studies standards that already have gone through a significant amount of review and are one vote from final approval by the State Board of Education. It’s uncertain what that will entail, but board leaders pledged their cooperation.

“The State Board of Education will partner with the Department of Education to ensure that the social studies standards are in full compliance with any new state law before they are heard on final reading at the Board’s July 2017 meeting,” said executive director Sara Heyburn Morrison in a statement.

The law will go into effect for the 2018-19 school year, the year before the new standards, which were supposedly finished, are scheduled to reach classrooms.

One of the reasons for the state’s social studies review, which began in January 2016, was the large number of standards that teachers were struggling to cover. The review panel worked to winnow those down to a more manageable amount and did not include a separate semester for Tennessee history.

To eke the bill through, House leaders amended another bill to include the mandate. Rep. Art Swann, the House sponsor, said Thursday that he was glad not to put off the measure until next year.

“We’re still going to have to wait for implementation, which will take a year or two to get done,”  said the Maryville Republican.

Swann said he didn’t discuss the changes with the State Department of Education. “The Senate sent me the language, and it was fine with me and that’s what we ran with,” he said.

Eight of the nine members of the Standards Recommendation Committee who vetted the proposed new standards believe they allow teachers to go in-depth on important historical topics. But member Bill Carey, who sells Tennessee history materials through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids, voted against some of the standards. He was mostly concerned with the reduction of Tennessee historical facts in grades 1-5.

Architects of the new standards say teachers still could cover such topics, but that decisions about how should be made at the local level.

Called the Douglas Henry History Act, the legislation mandating the course is named after the longtime state senator from Nashville who died in March.

test prep

In final year of Common Core, Tennessee teachers can use practice test questions from PARCC

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

As Tennessee prepares students for its final year of tests aligned with Common Core standards, teachers can pull practice questions from a variety of sources, including the same testing consortium that the state once distanced itself from.

In 2014, Tennessee joined other states that pulled out of a multistate consortium known as PARCC due to the growing political backlash over Common Core — the standards on which the consortium is based. That exit led Tennessee to work with a private test maker to develop its own assessment called TNReady.

At a TNReady training session last week in Memphis, educators were told that this year’s TNReady questions will look different than they’ve seen on past tests. Those seeking practice questions for their students were directed to the state’s internal online platform called EdTools. Questions from PARCC and Smarter Balanced, another testing consortium, also are acceptable as long as they “aligned to our standards,” said Nakia Towns, assistant state education commissioner for data and research.

“But in terms of the rigor of those items and the development process for those two consortiums, I would say definitely those are high-quality items,” Towns told the group.

Tennessee still uses Common Core as its guide for teaching and testing, even though state officials formally dropped using the controversial name in recent years.

Officially, this will be Tennessee’s final year to administer Common Core-aligned tests for math and English language arts. Next school year, the state switches to teaching and testing to its Tennessee Academic Standards, developed after 18 months of review and revisions that began with an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

And when the testing window opens on April 17 for grades 3-11, this will be the first year of administering TNReady under Questar Assessments Inc., the state’s new testing company. The State Department of Education hired the Minneapolis-based firm last summer after firing North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. only a few months earlier. The switch came after the botched online debut of TNReady led to the test’s cancellation last year for grades 3-8.


Why the failed debut of TNReady leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come


Representatives of Questar were among those fielding questions from teachers last week in Memphis. Marty Mineck, a Questar vice president, said TNReady is a homegrown test that won’t look like the company’s assessments in other states.

“This is not a Questar assessment. This is not a Questar test. The reason we are here is to build a TNReady that is literally for the students of Tennessee,” he told the group.

Unlike last year, most students will take TNReady by pen and paper. After the statewide attempt at online testing failed in 2016, the Department of Education adopted a new game plan that includes gradually transitioning most schools to online testing by 2019. Only 25 out of 130 eligible districts have signed up for online testing this spring for their high school students.

The TNReady training in Memphis was among six hosted across Tennessee by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonpartisan education advocacy group founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. The other sessions were held in Chattanooga, Kingsport, Knoxville, Jackson and Nashville. In all, about 500 teachers have attended.

Clarification: March 30, 2017: This version clarifies that the State Department of Education is directing teachers seeking practice questions to its EdTools platform, but also has endorsed using PARCC as a resource.