Are Children Learning

Educators, not politicians, take the reins in developing Tennessee’s new academic standards

PHOTO: G. Tatter
The Common Core standards for high school math adorn the walls of Christi Root's classroom at Monterey High School in Putnam County.

Though Tennessee’s review of the Common Core State Standards was borne out of fiery rhetoric and political maneuvering, the newest panel of reviewers in the process are quietly focusing on small changes to the once-controversial standards.

Members of the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee hope the revisions, which were proposed by a panel 42 educators appointed by the State Board of Education, will make the standards more developmentally appropriate for students and easier for educators to understand and teach.

The committee, which convened its second meeting Tuesday in Nashville, is scrutinizing the work of the revision panel of educators who spent the past four months culling through public feedback on the Common Core and revising and rewriting standards as needed. The public input was collected during a six-month online review open to all Tennessee residents and completed in April.

“This is an exciting time,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools and a member of the recommendation committee, whose members were appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell. “It just really makes you proud that this kind of work is being done by educators across the state.”

That sentiment is in stark contrast to the political furor only a year ago over the Common Core, a set of K-12 academic standards in math and English language arts that set out what students should know and be able to do. Billed as a move to higher expectations, tougher tests and significant instructional shifts in the classroom, they were adopted in Tennessee in 2010 and implemented beginning in 2012. However, a political backlash erupted over charges of nationalized education reform at the expense of homegrown values and input. The hullabaloo led to the current multi-layered standards review process, including the work of the Standards Recommendation Committee, created under a bill approved by the legislature earlier this year.

The committee heard Tuesday from several educators who helped revise the standards over the summer, including Joseph Jones, math coordinator for Cheatham County Schools. He said it helped that most participants in the first period of public review last winter and spring wanted to keep most of the standards.

“That just told me that our initial thinking was right in that the standards were pretty good,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like we were starting from ground zero.”

All of the members of the newest committee are educators, like the teachers who did most of the heavy lifting in revisions.

There was no dissension during the first part of Tuesday’s meeting, which focused on the modified version of the English standards. The educator-reviewers kept most of the writing standards, even ones that had been considered too challenging for their grade level, but added new standards to help support teachers and students.

They also added standards related to literacy, a competency that has befuddled educators across Tennessee because the state’s poor reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged in recent years. And they rephrased standards to make them more understandable. For example, for standards that included suggestions of what materials teachers could use to teach the standard, the reviewers removed the examples.

“Let’s focus on the skill and the point,” said Susan Groenke, a professor of English education at the University of Tennessee, who helped revise the English standards. “We don’t want to tell teachers what literature to teach.”

Though the recommendation committee members and educator-reviewers all called upon their own classroom experiences, they were quick to refer to the public feedback, considered key to the review process.

Allowing the public to be involved will mitigate mistrust that surrounded the Common Core, said Sharen Cypress, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Freed-Hardeman University and a member of the Standards Recommendation Committee selected by Haslam.

“When people lack knowledge or information about what students are learning, they fear it,” she said. “There will be no problem implementing these standards.”

The educators’ revisions went online on Tuesday and will be open for another round of public comment for one month. Then, the 12-member Standards Recommendation Committee will consider the second round of public feedback before sending its recommendations to the State Board of Education about what the final standards should look like.

In addition to feedback from the public, the committee will receive a report on the standards from higher education officials in the next month. The proposed version of the standards will be previewed at public meetings across Tennessee.

While the review process was designed to be transparent, it has so many layers that stakeholders might need a map to keep up.

The process began last fall when the governor ordered the public review of the standards amid growing calls for repeal of the Common Core, a lynchpin of Tennessee’s education overhaul that began when the state threw its hat in the ring for the federal Race to the Top competition, and the money that went with it.

While Ramsay had predicted that Common Core would not survive during the last legislative session, it did. Through a compromise pounded out, at least in part through the work of Americans for Prosperity, a well-funded conservative advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., the legislature opted instead to insert an additional layer into the governor’s standards review process by creating the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee.

The committee was a concession to both Common Core supporters, who believed the standards were a rigorous improvement on the benchmarks used before 2010, and its ardent detractors, who viewed the standards as federal overreach. The compromise specified that Common Core be “reviewed and replaced,” a directive previously avoided by Haslam but championed by Common Core opponents, including Ramsey.

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.