Not Ready for TNReady

Online testing fiasco sends Tennessee ed officials back to the drawing board

On a day that was supposed to mark a new era of online testing in Tennessee, a major technology failure led State Department of Education officials to scrap their new online exam and revert to paper-and-pencil tests.

Within minutes after some schools statewide began administering the TNReady test developed by North Carolina-based Measurement Inc., the company’s online platform experienced a severe network outage, prompting state officials to order districts to stop the testing immediately if they were experiencing technical difficulties.

By the end of the day, the issues not resolved, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen emailed district directors to stop the process altogether because, she said, “we are not confident in the system’s ability to perform consistently.”

The admission and change of plans are a major blow to McQueen and her Education Department, which have worked with Measurement Inc. since October 2014 to develop a new assessment that moves Tennessee schools to online testing and also is aligned with Tennessee’s current Common Core standards. Even before then, the state had prepared for years for the switch to online testing.

“Like you, we are incredibly disappointed that the MIST platform was not accessible to schools across the state as the Part I testing window opened,” McQueen wrote directors. “We understand that the shift to paper and pencil testing has many scheduling implications for your schools, teachers, and students. We thank you for your patience and cooperation as we transition to a test medium that we are confident will allow all students to show what they know.”

Just last week, state education leaders briefed reporters about contingency plans if technical glitches or system failures occurred. The plan was to give individual districts discretion in ordering backup paper-based tests, plus flexibility in taking the test outside the testing window, scheduled for Feb. 8 through March 4.

State education officials never hinted that a technical failure of this magnitude was a possibility. In fact, they expressed optimism in the wake of months of capacity tests, significant investments in server capacity, and on-the-ground visits to local districts that tested the program.

But after Monday’s fiasco and concerned about more disruptions, state officials didn’t even attempt to salvage TNReady’s online exam for the second part of the testing window, scheduled for April 18 through May 13.

“Despite the many improvements the department has helped to make to the system in recent months and based on the events of this morning, we are not confident in the system’s ability to perform consistently,” McQueen wrote. “In the best interest of our students and to protect instructional time, we cannot continue with Measurement Incorporated’s online testing platform in its current state.”

Even with years and months of preparation, teachers had been increasingly skeptical of whether the state and their districts were ready for TNReady.

“Any teacher would have told you there was going to be a problem,” said Mary Holden, a Nashville parent and English III teacher at Centennial High School in Franklin. “Hello, wake up! It is not rocket science to figure out there are going to be issues with online testing the first time you do it.”

Molly Handler, a fourth-grade teacher at Glenn Enhanced Option Elementary School in Nashville, said glitches on practice tests throughout the year prepared her for the worst.

“Honestly, it’s not a huge source of stress because we knew (there would be problems), and there was nothing we could do about it,” she said. “So we really just focused on teaching.”

In Memphis, the delay left teachers scrambling to restructure lesson plans for the next few weeks, said Ryan Winn, a seventh-grade math teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty moving forward,” he said.

A full week before the testing window began, officials of RePublic Schools — a Nashville-based charter organization known for its expansive technical resources and also openly supportive of the state’s transition to TNReady — outlined concerns in a letter to McQueen. They said half of their students were unable to log on to the testing platform only days before the test, making them wary of the chances that students statewide would be able to log on.

“Here’s what we believe should happen: Schools should be confident that they can administer the tests on any day or days within the testing window that work best for their students and teachers,” the letter said. “Students should be confident that when they sit down to take an exam that the only thing they need to think about is how best to demonstrate what they know.”

Initially, Tennessee was supposed to use funds under the state’s federal Race to the Top award to roll out the PARCC test, which is also an online test aligned with Common Core, during the 2014-15 school year. However, wary of federal intrusion in state testing policies, the legislature instead voted to stick with the TCAP test for 2015-2016 and open up bids for a new testing vendor. That led the state to award a $108 million contract to Measurement Inc., which offered the lowest bid.

Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report. 

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.