Testing conundrum

McQueen wants to prevent non-tested early grades from becoming a dumping ground for weaker teachers

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks during a Brookings Institute panel discussion about pre-K.

The temptation for principals to place their best teachers in grades with high-stakes testing has Education Commissioner Candice McQueen concerned about the quality of teaching in Tennessee’s earliest grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t mandate testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools and entire districts.

McQueen says local administrators are learning the hard way that reassigning lower-performing elementary school teachers to non-tested grades doesn’t help their students get the foundation they need for lifelong learning, a charge backed up by research from Vanderbilt University. 

“They would say … since we’re starting our value-added measure, starting our work around teacher evaluation, starting how we look at districts at third grade, they made some poor decisions about who they were putting in their kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms, and pre-K,” she said Monday during a panel discussion about prekindergarten at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

The fix? Next school year, Tennessee will require its pre-K programs to evaluate teachers using “growth portfolio models,” which are based on samples of student work. The evaluations will help teachers identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and guide professional development. The state already has piloted portfolio models for kindergarten and first-grade teachers.

“All of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers in 97 percent of our districts will be going through a portfolio growth model that will allow us to actually look at effectiveness of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers,” she said.

McQueen isn’t the only Tennessee education leader seeking to address concerns around early education instruction. Sharon Griffin, Shelby County’s chief of schools, says pressures around testing have long warped teacher placement priorities in her district.

“I will be very honest and transparent,” Griffin told local school board members earlier this month. “There was once upon a time that when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2. We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up — because three years with an ineffective teacher is hard for you to catch up.”

The new teacher evaluation system is one of many changes around early education that the state is making with the support of researchers at Vanderbilt University. The changes are in response to a 2015 study that found the benefits of the state’s public pre-K program faded by second grade.

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:

performance pay

Teacher merit pay has merit when it comes to student scores, analysis shows

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
Students in Melissa Hall’s fourth-grade class raise their hands to answer questions at Cherokee Elementary School in Memphis.

Heaps of conflicting studies exist on whether teacher incentive pay improves student performance. Now after wading through decades of findings, researchers at Vanderbilt University have come to a conclusion.

It does.

Student test scores have a modest but statistically significant improvement when an incentive pay plan is in place for their teachers, say researchers who analyzed findings from 44 primary studies between 1997 and 2016.

“Approximately 74 percent of the effect sizes recorded in our review were positive. The influence was relatively similar across the two subject areas, mathematics and English language arts,” said Matthew Springer, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

The academic increase is roughly equivalent to adding three weeks of learning to the school year, based on studies conducted in U.S. schools, and four weeks based on studies across the globe.

But the 16-month analysis, released on Wednesday, also notes some important caveats that may help explain why different studies seem to waffle on the effect of pay-for-performance plans.

“We found that effect sizes are highly sensitive to program design and study context, so there are many issues that policymakers should look at when they’re considering or implementing a merit pay plan,” said researcher Lam D. Pham.

For instance, the evidence suggests that rewarding teachers as a group is almost twice as effective as rewarding them individually based on rank-order.

The rollout is important, too. In one study that found no effect on student test scores in Chicago, researchers noted that teachers who could have been impacted didn’t appear to understand that a merit pay plan existed.

“I don’t think there’s one design that will work across the board,” Pham added. “You have to consider the local teacher labor market. For instance, designing an incentive plan for a rural area where there aren’t many teachers to hire or retain is going to look different than in somewhere like Washington, D.C., where there are tons of teachers available.”

Merit pay in education is a longstanding idea dating to the early 1700s in Great Britain, and numerous U.S. cities used some form in the early 1900s. The approach has garnered considerable attention in the last decade in America as the federal government has awarded more than $2 billion across some 30 states to design and launch teacher performance pay systems.

Teacher pay is significant because salaries account for nearly 60 percent of school expenses nationwide, and research is clear that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling (although out-of-school factors matter more). About 95 percent of public school districts set teacher pay based on years of experience and highest degree earned, but merit pay advocates argue that the approach needs to change.

In Tennessee, dozens of school systems have tied salary increases to effectiveness in the classroom, including improved student test scores. The shift was enabled under a 2010 law passed as part of the state’s winning bid for a federal Race to the Top grant. But many teachers have said they don’t trust Tennessee’s evaluation system and are frustrated by the elevated focus on testing.

Pham emphasizes the importance of engagement, teacher support and working through questions about merit pay, which he says takes time.

“You can’t just do it in one or two years and expect to see huge gains,” he said.

“And if we don’t build capacity and support (for teachers), it won’t work,” he added, citing variables such as coaching, better resources, stronger school leadership and smaller classes. “I think where we should look next is pairing pay incentives with teacher supports.”

Emerging studies also suggest that merit pay can improve teacher recruitment and retention, which has been found to contribute to improving student performance, particularly in low-income areas.

You can find the full report here.