One and done

Tennessee fires TNReady testmaker, suspends tests for grades 3-8

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks to reporters in April 2016.

The Tennessee Department of Education has terminated its contract with the developer of the state’s new standardized test and suspended testing for students in grades 3-8 this school year due to the company’s inability to deliver testing materials, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday.

However, TNReady testing will continue as planned for the state’s high school students, since those materials already have been delivered.

The announcement delivered the fatal blow to a test that has been plagued with problems beginning with a failed online rollout on Feb. 8 and numerous subsequent delivery delays of printed testing materials. The last straw came last week when Measurement Inc. failed to meet its most recent deadline — to deliver materials by April 22 — in time for testing to begin this week.

As of Wednesday morning, all districts still were waiting on some grade 3-8 materials to arrive, with a total of 2 million documents yet to be shipped, according to a statement from the department.

“Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing,” McQueen said. “We’ve exhausted every option in problem solving with this vendor to assist them in getting these tests delivered. Districts have exceeded their responsibility and obligation to wait for grade 3-8 materials, and we will not ask districts to continue waiting on a vendor that has repeatedly failed us.”

Tennessee is the second state this year to suspend its standardized tests due to problems rooted in technical glitches. Alaska canceled its online tests early this month, due to interruptions caused when a construction worker accidentally cut a fiber optic cable thousands of miles away.

Tennessee’s suspension means that many tenets of test-based accountability will be paused for one year — a leap for a state that insisted on using the new test as the basis for teacher evaluations and student grades, even as the U.S. Department of Education offered flexibility for states making the transition to new tests. High school students’ test scores will be the only ones eligible to be used in teacher evaluations, but only if they boost a teacher’s score, and only if teachers choose to include them.

"Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

“Challenges with this test vendor have not diverted us from our goals as a state,” McQueen said. “Tennessee has made historic and tremendous growth over the past several years. Higher standards and increased accountability have been a key part of this progress. Our work toward an aligned assessment plays a critical role in ensuring that all students are continuing to meet our high expectations and are making progress on their path to postsecondary and the workforce.”

The Department of Education is working with the Tennessee Office of Procurement to expedite the process to find a new test vendor in time for testing next spring.

Though Measurement Inc. already operated under an abbreviated timeline, with only one year to develop and deliver TNReady, McQueen said she is confident that the next round will be better.

“While certainly you have a short timeline, we believe we will have a good test next year, and we will have a strong vendor relationship,” she said at a news conference in Nashville.

She said that, despite chronic challenges with TNReady, Tennessee has a strong foundation for a good test moving forward.

“We have a good test this year. It’s a better test than we’ve had in Tennessee in the past,” she said, adding that whatever vendor the state uses next will incorporate questions developed by Measurement Inc.

“Next year’s test will be better than this year’s test,” she promised.

Gov. Bill Haslam also took an optimistic view of the situation. “The failure of the testing vendor to deliver the tests and meet its own obligations does not take away from the fact that Tennessee has created our own, higher standards, we have an improved assessment fully aligned with those standards, and we remain committed going forward to measuring student performance fairly and ensuring accountability for those results,” Haslam said in a statement.

In an interview this week with Chalkbeat, Measurement Inc. president Henry Scherich said that McQueen’s decision in February to shift from an online test to a paper-and-pencil version put the testing company in a difficult, and even impossible, situation.

McQueen countered Wednesday that the state’s contract with Measurement Inc. always had provisions for paper tests in the case of technical troubles.

Though the state’s original contract with Measurement Inc. was for $108 million, Tennessee has only paid the Durham, N.C.-based company $1.6 million so far for content.

Public reaction to the state’s announcement erupted quickly, with many TNReady critics feeling vindicated, including Tullahoma City School board member Jessica Fogarty, who created an online petition asking the state to suspend Part II testing before it began. More than 2,000 Tennesseans signed the petition.

Fogarty said the state should have terminated the contract sooner. She also noted that the state’s next testmaker, like Measurement Inc., will have only one year to develop a test — a timeline that she called unrealistic.

“If anything, we should learn from our mistakes from this year … especially knowing our state standards will change for next year,” Fogarty said. “There’s more to be resolved with testing in Tennessee. … There’s still a lot more questions to be answered before we can be confident about the future.”

"I think the pause will be taken as a relief at this point."Wayne Miller, Tennessee Organization of of School Superintendents

Others supported the commissioner’s decision.

“I think the pause will be taken as a relief at this point,” said Wayne Miller, director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “With all the accountability that’s centered around the outcome of student assessments, that’s created certainly a less-than-ideal environment.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, expressed disappointment that many third-graders through eighth-graders graders won’t be able to gauge their performance this spring. “Parents and teachers deserve to know how much progress their students have made over the year, and all Tennesseans deserve an annual snapshot of the progress schools and school districts are making,” Woodson said.

District leaders quickly began sharing the news.

Educators and policymakers chimed in too:

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

Chalkbeat staffers Laura Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report.

Are Children Learning

Memphis schools in most need of growth see gains, but vast majority of students still not on grade level

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Melody Smith discusses how students at A.B. Hill Elementary grew significantly in test scores.

Three years after one elementary school joined Shelby County Schools’ flagship school improvement program, Principal Melody Smith says growth is proof their efforts are working.

“We came together we battled, we cried, we fought tooth and nail, but in the end we kept our students in the center,” Smith told teachers as they reviewed the results a week before school began.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teachers at A.B. Hill Elementary discuss what makes an ideal school.

A.B. Hill Elementary School, which is part of the Innovation Zone, went from less than 5 percent of students reading on grade level last year to 15 percent in state test scores released Thursday. That jump earned the South Memphis school the state’s highest ranking in growth, but the scores also mean about 85 percent of students still don’t meet state requirements.

The iZone’s two dozen schools have been heralded for how much students have grown since 2012, especially when compared to the state-run Achievement School District, which heavily relies on private charter organizations to boost test scores, and scored the lowest in student growth.

But the challenge is far from over, and school leaders are looking for ways to improve faster.

State leaders generally look at three years of data before determining if academic strategies are working. And in the past three years, the state’s switch to online testing has been tumultuous, which has caused some district leaders and state lawmakers to question the results. But on national tests, Tennessee was held up as a model for student growth compared to surrounding states in a recent Stanford University study — even while the state is still in the bottom half of test scores nationwide.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

Only three schools in the iZone — Westhaven Elementary, Cherokee Elementary, and Ford Road Elementary — have more than 20 percent of students reading on grade level. By comparison, 16 schools surpassed that in science, five in math, and four in social studies.

“There was a lot of movement in our elementary schools,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for schools performing poorly on state tests. But “we’re going to need a laser light focus on our high schools and our middle schools.”

The district created the iZone to boost student achievement in schools performing the worst in the state, all of which are in impoverished neighborhoods. The state Legislature allowed principals to have much more autonomy on which certified teachers they could hire, pumped about $600,000 per school for teacher pay incentives, and added more resources to combat the effects of poverty in the classroom, such as clothes and food closets.

Now, entering its seventh year, the iZone is still outshining the state-run district, and students are still showing more growth compared to their peers across the state who also performed poorly last year. Nine schools in the iZone got the state’s highest ranking for growth, compared to just five last year when the state switched to a new test. (Scroll to the bottom of this story to compare test scores and growth for iZone schools.)

Of the 23 schools in the iZone last year, seven of them were high schools. None of the high schools had more than a third of students on grade level or above in any subject. Four of them — Raleigh Egypt, Melrose, Mitchell, and Hamilton — saw significant growth in at least one subject. Last year was Raleigh Egypt’s first year in the iZone under Shari Meeks, who previously was principal at Oakhaven Middle School.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Clothes closet at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis.

Burt said “the first big thing” that will be done to combat low reading scores in middle and high schools will be to strengthen curriculum. Adding curriculum for younger students played a part in boosting test scores that contributed to growth, leaders said.

Also, new reading specialists will teach a separate class for students who are the furthest behind on top of their normal English class. Before, teachers were responsible for catching up those students, or specialists would take them out of class to work on reading skills.

At the district level, Burt said science, social studies, math, and English advisors will be working more directly with teachers. And principal coaches will have more say in how and where those advisors concentrate their efforts.

Inside the school, Smith, the principal at A.B. Hill Elementary, said having teachers practice more difficult lessons in front of each other helped spur more ideas on how to make the curriculum work for their students.

Teachers said collaboration with others was key to figuring out the best way to improve test scores there. It was common for teachers to invite each other to sit in on lessons and give feedback.

“We would debrief with each other all the time,” said Brenda Pollard, who taught fourth-grade English and social studies. Now she says the foundation has been laid for higher achievement.

“It can be done,” she said. “We’re living proof it can be done.”

Below is a table of how iZone schools fared on state tests. Fields labeled “4.9” were hidden in state data, but are likely below 5 percent.

tar heel trivia

New education research? A good chance it’s from North Carolina.

PHOTO: Creative Commons/Boston Public Library

Barbeque. Basketball rivalries. The Blue Ridge Mountains.

Education research?

It’s something else North Carolina is known for, at least among a subset of social scientists.

“North Carolina has really done something special,” says Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor and the editor of Education Finance and Policy, an academic journal.

“If you look over the last 20 years and focus on the highest quality work, it’s disproportionately work that comes from North Carolina data,” says Dan Goldhaber, an education professor at the University of Washington at Bothell.

North Carolina students aren’t more interesting or easier to find. But a disproportionate share of education research — and therefore, a disproportionate amount of what we know about how certain policies work — comes out of the Tar Heel State.

That’s because North Carolina has kept track of things like student test scores, teacher demographics, and school accountability data since the ‘90s, and also made that information more accessible to researchers than anywhere else.

It works well for those looking for data. But it also underscores a troubling reality: We know much less about how policies play out in places where data is hard to access — and in some cases, may be kept under lock and key for political reasons. That leaves the public to take the best lessons it can from a state that’s home to just 3 percent of the country’s public school students.

“The problem is that what you really want to do is look at lots of places,” said Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “You want to be able to leverage the natural experiments and understand the variation in a way that’s really hard to do in one place.”

Of course, researchers in many cases do work productively with local officials to obtain data. And although it appears that North Carolina is the most commonly studied state in education policy, it is by no means the subject of the majority of academic papers. For instance, seven studies published in Education Finance and Policy over the last two years were focused on North Carolina — more than any other state or district, though over 30 others focused on K-12 schooling in the U.S used national data or data from elsewhere.

North Carolina’s popularity is tied to the fact that it is one of the few states where researchers can get student data (that has been anonymized) from a third party, in this case a research center established in 2000 that operates out of Duke University. In most states, the state education department or other state agency controls that information. Many states and districts lack the resources, streamlined systems, or staff capacity that North Carolina’s center has to meet researchers’ requests.

That center also separates policymakers and the keepers of the data — which may be crucial for ensuring information is made available.

“Not every place wants to open up their data and say, ‘Study what you want,’” said Schwartz. “The risk is that a researcher investigates something or casts it in a way that’s not positive for the school district.”

Goldhaber echoed this. “If you’re talking to somebody who’s involved with politics … they’re going to see everything through a political lens. And that when it comes to evaluating programs and policies, people often don’t see much upside,” he said.

In North Carolina, local researchers realized the importance of tracking students and schools over time, according to Duke’s Clara Muschkin, the faculty director of the data center.

When Goldhaber was studying schools there in the 1990s, he recalled, “There was a real belief that people ought to study these issues, and that was kind of pervasive under Gov. Jim Hunt.”

That extended to research that Hunt’s administration might not like. For instance, Goldhaber was interested in studying whether teachers who attained National Board certification were more effective in the classroom. Hunt was the founding board chair of the organization that awarded those certifications, and Goldhaber’s research had previously shown that certification types didn’t make much difference. But that didn’t stop the administration from providing that data to Goldhaber, who ultimately found North Carolina’s board certified teachers were particularly effective.

It’s impossible to say how often political concerns play a role in keeping data from researchers. When politics is involved, researchers themselves may not know, and if they do, they may not want to publicize it in hopes of eventually working out an agreement. (This reporter has heard frequent complaints about politics getting in the way of data access — but in most cases those are made off the record.)

A more subtle method of interference is when officials decide not to collect data in the first place that researchers might use to reach unflattering conclusions. California, Goldhaber said, is a particular culprit.

The largest state in the country has weakened, or declined to improve, its data systems since 2010, and the information that exists is not readily available to researchers. Governor Jerry Brown has argued that educational data is of little use to teachers and schools, and feeds into a test-focused mentality of schooling.

“You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” wrote Brown in a critique of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which encouraged more data collection. “I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”

Goldhaber has found it difficult to study the state’s education policies.

“There is just basic data that we could not get out of California,” he said, referring to a study he and colleagues are undertaking there.

Some places are becoming more cognizant of concerns about a lack of quality research about their schools. In Washington, D.C., the city council is considering funding an education research group and may make its data widely available to researchers. In California, some advocates and policymakers have pushed for improving its data systems, an idea the state’s likely next governor has backed.

In the meantime, those interested in key education questions — in California, DC, and elsewhere — can always look to North Carolina for answers. That’s largely a good thing, says Goldhaber.

“The fact that we are learning things in North Carolina is tremendously useful for informing policy and practice in other states,” he said.