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.

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.