Are Children Learning

Is Tennessee ready for TNReady? Five things to know about the state’s new standardized test

PHOTO: TN.gov
In less than ten months, Tennessee will debut a new standardized test to replace the TCAP.

This spring marks the last time Tennessee students will take the Tennesssee Comprehensive Assessment Program, fondly known as TCAP tests. Beginning next school year, the state’s standardized exam will be “TNReady,” a test being developed by North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.

Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education say the new assessment will be aligned with Tennessee classroom standards — whatever those end up being. But whether the Tennessee General Assembly decides to keep or replace the Common Core State Standards, the new test will roll out in only 10 months, when high school students on block schedules sit down for exams in November.

Here’s what we know so far about the new testing program:

1) It can be administered online or by paper. Guidelines are being drafted about which districts will use an online version of the test, and which will use paper and pencil, according to Emily Freitag, assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction, who last week updated a joint meeting of the State Board of Education and Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Several states already have moved their testing online, and Tennessee was supposed to do the same this year by administering the PARCC test, an online Common Core-aligned test with open-ended questions. However, the legislature nixed the transition last spring in a pushback to Common Core, and instead mandated Tennessee students take the multiple-choice TCAP another year. Although districts have been preparing for an online test via PARCC, concerns remain that many districts, especially in rural areas, don’t have the technology to administer it.

2) It’s “adaptable” to new standards. A common complaint about TCAP has been that it doesn’t align with the state’s new standards, which were phased in from 2010 to 2014. A big selling point of the new test is that it finally can assess if students are meeting those standards.

However, whether those standards for math and English remain in place is still up for debate – literally. The Common Core State Standards are under review, and the legislature is considering a bill that would repeal them. If that happens, there won’t be much time for tentmakers to go back to the drawing board. Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner for data and research, assured last week’s joint session that the new test will adapt to whatever standards Tennessee ends up with. “We recognize that we are in a standards review process,” Towns said. “TNReady is going to give us the flexibility to align with standards, whatever those may be at the end of that process.”

3) The writing test will become part of the English/language arts test. This week, Tennessee students sat down for their TCAP writing tests for the last time — kind of. TNReady will have a separate written component, but the score will be part of students’ English/language arts score, not separate. The writing-intensive part of TNReady will be taken in February, as the writing test is currently done. The rest of the English assessment will be administered at the end of the year.

4) All sections of TNReady will involve writing. Gone are the days of all-multiple choice tests. Even the math TNReady will require students to explain some of their answers in writing. This could help students, since they now will be able to receive partial credit for showing their work in math. They also will have to rely less on calculators during the math assessment. The English exam will have several open-ended questions, in addition to the writing section.

5) There will be math assessments for both traditional high school math — Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II — and integrated math. Last month, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools announced that it will join four other Tennessee districts teaching integrated math, which teaches the same concepts as geometry and algebra, but integrates them across three years. A TCAP for integrated math doesn’t exist, and the move to have a statewide assessment for integrated math might encourage more districts to join in that course of study.

For more background on Measurement Inc., the company developing the test, read our past coverage.

Did we answer your questions about the state’s new testing tool? Are you ready for TNReady, or do you have reservations? Share your comments below.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.