the long view

Why this year’s failed TNReady test leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

Students at Manual High School work during class in 2013. (Photo by Marc Piscotty)

Tennessee’s decision to cancel standardized testing this year amid sweeping snafus sent shockwaves across the state’s education system this spring.

But the long-term consequences could be more significant — and wide-reaching.

As the state finalizes a contract with a new testing company to replace the one it fired this spring, Tennessee’s biggest challenge now might be to regain the trust of educators, students and parents. Its new measuring stick for math and English, called TNReady, had been positioned as the centerpiece of a policy agenda that would make Tennessee a leader in student achievement after decades of lagging.

“As an educator, I’ve lost confidence in the ability of Tennessee to successfully execute a test on the state level,” said seventh-grade social studies teacher Mitch Orr, who works at STEM Prep Academy in Nashville.

Outside of the state, observers who once saw promise in Tennessee’s ambitious education agenda now see a trail of red flags along the road to improve student achievement.

“The shine is off the apple when it comes to Tennessee education reform,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute and a proponent of much of the state’s education improvement agenda. “A lot of us watching this from afar are nervous for Tennessee.”

State education officials acknowledge the doubt from onlookers, even as they insist that Tennessee’s vaunted accountability system can recover from the setbacks.

“We’re having to certainly build that trust back, not only with educators but with the general public,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

"The shine is off the apple when it comes to Tennessee education reform."Michael Petrilli, Thomas Fordham Institute

One major challenge is that the absence of test scores complicates the federal requirement for the state to explain how different groups of students are doing. That requirement, in place since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, is one of the holdovers in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which passed last fall.

“It’s a problem,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King said in May when asked how Tennessee’s test cancellation could impact the tracking of achievement gaps and education equities, a key purpose of its accountability system. He said the state would have to dig into its data to find other ways to assess whether all students are improving, or just some groups of them.

Tennessee State Board of Education members have flagged this year’s lack of data as a serious problem — albeit one for which they don’t know the solution. “That data tells us something very important and real,” says Sara Heyburn, the board’s executive director. “It helps us understand where our achievement gaps are. … Equity really rests on having that data.”

Test scores are also at the heart of the state’s school turnaround efforts. The state-run Achievement School District uses them to decide which schools to shutter and reopen as charter schools, and urban districts use them to decide which schools should receive extra resources as part of their “innovation zones.” These school improvement efforts have been closely watched, and in some cases, replicated in other states.

In April, the Achievement School District announced it will not take over more schools in 2017-18 because of the testing travails. And since decisions about state intervention are based on three years of data, it’s unclear how such decisions will be made in 2018 and 2019, either.

“The [testing] issues compromised the quality of that data,” said Tim Fields, a national expert on school turnaround work with the think tank Public Impact. “That’s a challenge in many respects.”

"We’re having to certainly build that trust back, not only with educators but with the general public."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

Then in May, the State Board of Education eliminated the accountability provisions it had just passed last year. That’s because this year’s test scores will not be available to evaluate a large swath of teachers or measure achievement gaps at most elementary and middle schools.

Instead, the state is asking districts to fulfill its mandate to evaluate teachers using student performance by counting last year’s test score growth scores for more, and by selecting an available option for student performance from a preset menu.

In the absence of school-wide test scores, many elementary and middle school teachers are being rated based in part on their district’s high school data, such as graduation rates — an important metric but one that does not try to isolate their impact.

“While we do affect graduation rates as an elementary school, I definitely think our test scores give a truer picture,” said Dana Lester, an elementary school librarian in Rutherford County, who like many of her colleagues opted to use graduation rates in her evaluation. “But we really didn’t have a choice.”

Department officials, while disappointed and apologetic about the testing problems, insist that the state’s accountability system is flexible enough to absorb this year’s setbacks.

“It is not being upended,” McQueen said. “We have so many things that can still provide us information.” She cited a range of items that the state measures, including high school test scores and absenteeism rates, as possible metrics for assessing schools this year.

“[The data] will just look different than what we’ve been able to provide for the last few years,” she said.

Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray says that, for educators, the question now is how and if the state will reevaluate the role of standardized tests as a result of this year’s setbacks. That answer might come soon as the state begins conversations about complying with the new federal education law ESSA, which requires an array of data besides test scores to be used for accountability purposes. Last year, the state added more measures beyond testing to its district accountability system, signaling a slight shift in the importance of testing. Petrilli, of the Fordham Institute, predicts that states will move away from using test scores to evaluate teachers.

"There is a phenomenal opportunity ... to take this, go back to the beginning, and emerge as a leader in education."Mitch Orr, Nashville teacher

While frustrated as a teacher, Mitch Orr views Tennessee’s shakeup in accountability as a chance to make improvements.

“There is a phenomenal opportunity that the state has to take this, go back to the beginning, and emerge as a leader in education,” he said.

In the meantime, Tennessee still has a system based entirely on end-of-year test data that won’t work until a test is entirely rolled out.

“People know when you’re shifting assessments, you’re going to have to wait a year to see growth — so now to put that off more, it’s just another year until you have that information at scale,” said Sonja Santelises, outgoing vice president at the Washington-based think tank Education Trust and incoming superintendent of Baltimore City Schools, who has worked closely with Tennessee educators.

“It means one more year of just kind of paddling. You lose momentum.”

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.