primer

Your guide to district- and school-level TNReady scores

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

Tennessee soon will release district- and school-level scores from the state’s new, and supposedly harder, standardized test. And for many, the results will be grim.

While the State Department of Education released statewide scores last month, this week’s scores will provide the first look at how individual high schools and districts fared in the first year under the state’s new testing program, called TNReady.

The statewide scores showed far fewer high school students scoring on grade-level than in years past, though state officials have cautioned against comparisons. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen emphasized that drops in math, English and social studies are because the new tests for those subjects are harder and are aligned to more rigorous standards.

Tennessee is only releasing scores for high schools because end-of-year tests for middle and elementary schools were cancelled in April after a series of logistical and technical challenges. The testmaker, Measurement Inc., was fired.  

Here’s what you need to know about the new test scores, and how they will be used:

Scores are supposed to provide more accurate information about postsecondary readiness.

Statewide scores mirrored Tennessee’s ACT scores, which suggest that they more accurately reflect how ready students are for college. With more open-ended questions and fewer multiple-choice ones, TNReady and the state’s new social studies TCAP aim to measure critical thinking skills necessary to succeed after high school. The math and English tests also were aligned for the first time to the Common Core State Standards, which have been in all Tennessee classrooms since 2012 and are supposed to be geared more toward college readiness than previous benchmarks. (The state is rolling out revised standards based on the Common Core next school year.) Science scores are the exception, as the state won’t revamp science tests until new standards are phased in during the 2018-2019 school year.

Scores from this year and last year are apples and oranges.

Most schools will see declines in passing rates, but that doesn’t mean that the schools declined in quality. State officials emphasize that any big differences in scores are a reflection of the new test, not changes to the schools or districts.

But the state is still measuring growth.

Even though direct comparisons of test scores are invalid, they still can measure growth, say state officials.

As always, Tennessee is using its complicated value-added formula, which is supposed to show how much teachers contribute to individual student growth. In theory, the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, measures a student’s growth, but it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. This year, the state examined how students who scored at the same levels on prior assessments performed on TNReady in 2015-16. Students were expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement. If they performed better than their peers, no matter how their performance compares to last year’s, they will positively impact their teacher’s or school’s score.

Teachers can choose whether to count scores in teacher evaluation scores.

High school teachers can choose not to have TVAAS calculated with their 2015-16 evaluation scores if it doesn’t boost their overall score. Instead, they can use TVAAS from years past.

This year’s scores won’t be able to put schools on the state’s “priority school” list.

Schools on the state’s priority list — which identify those in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent — have been eligible for state takeover in recent years. But this year’s scores can’t land a school on that list. To address this year’s bumpy transition to TNReady, the State Department of Education plans to release two priority lists in 2017: one that includes available TNReady data from this year, and one that only includes data from the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years. A school must be on both priority lists to be eligible for state intervention.

The score reports will look different.

This year’s scores no longer will be categorized as advanced, proficient, basic or below basic. The state has rebranded performance levels as mastered, on-track, approaching grade level, and below grade-level. State officials also unveiled a redesigned score report this fall. It’s designed to help students, parents and educators understand better what the student scores say about their college readiness. The reports also will offer next steps for improvement.

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.