TNReady or not

Tennessee promises this year will be different when TNReady testing begins, but some educators are anxious

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The countdown to end-of-year testing is posted at the entrance of KIPP University Middle, a Memphis charter school where students have been preparing for Tennessee's TNReady test. The testing window runs from April 17 to May 5 for students in grades 3-11.

Amanda Nixon has waited a long time to see how her fifth-grade students in Memphis perform on Tennessee’s new standardized test.

Last spring, her students at Riverwood Elementary School didn’t get to finish their tests after technical and logistical problems led state officials to cancel the assessment altogether for grades 3-8.

But Tennessee leaders promise a different story next week, with a new testing company, a slightly revised test, and a new game plan that slow-walks the state into online testing. That means classes like Nixon’s, which will use printed materials this time around, should be able to measure their knowledge for the first time on a test based on the Common Core standards, which Tennessee brought to classrooms beginning in 2011. (Next school year, the state is moving to revised, Tennessee-specific standards.)

“I am really excited because I have been wanting an assessment that is aligned to our standards for quite a few years,” Nixon said. “I feel like this has been a change I’ve been waiting on for so long.”

Tennessee’s new TNReady assessments were supposed to provide the feedback that teachers like Nixon hungered for last year when the state’s first online test debuted under the oversight of Measurement Inc., a small testing company based in North Carolina. But it turned out that TNReady wasn’t so ready, and the state’s high schoolers were the only students able to take the tests all the way through.

After the testing fiasco — which began on the first day when students logged on and couldn’t get the test to load — Tennessee has a lot riding on its second try. The state Department of Education has planted its flag in the ground with TNReady and higher standards, touting them as the means to continue Tennessee’s claim of having the nation’s fastest-growing test scores.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she’s confident things will go smoothly during the three-week testing window that ends on May 5. Questar, a large-scale testing company based in Minneapolis, will administer TNReady this time around.

“We’re in constant communication, not only internally to make sure everything goes smoothly, but with our test partner,” McQueen said this week during a school visit in Shelby County.

Already, the possibility of widespread technical failures is off the table because most students will take the test on pencil and paper. Delivery problems also have been ruled out. The testing materials arrived this week in shrinkwrapped packets to schools across the state.

Still, some teachers are concerned whether the test will match what they’ve been told to teach. And that anxiety will hover until this summer when they receive their students’ scores — results that also will figure into teachers’ evaluations.

“Your pay is connected to the way your students perform,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher and president of the local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association union. “We don’t know what to expect, since it’s a new test.”

TNReady has been billed as a significant shift away from multiple-choice tests of yore, when students could guess on every question. Now, students also have to write some answers, as well as complete multiple-choice questions with more than one correct answer.

Veronica White, a learning coach at Sherwood Middle School in Memphis, is mostly confident that her students are prepared for the content. It’s the new format that concerns her. “It’s overwhelming for our kids because they’re just used to multiple choice,” she said.

Her concerns are warranted — and not just due to the format.

Again and again, McQueen has warned teachers, students and parents that TNReady is harder than previous state tests and that scores will go down, just as they did for the state’s high school students last year — and as they have in other states that have shifted to Common Core-based tests.

“It has a depth to it in writing and performance skills that we haven’t had in our state before,” McQueen said this week.

Students taking tests
PHOTO: Chalkbeat

Leticia Skae, a seventh-grade teacher at Nashville’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet School, taught at a high school last year, so she’s been through the TNReady drill. After her high school students took it, her teacher evaluation score dropped from a 5 to a 4 on a five-point scale. But she wasn’t surprised; she knew the new test was harder and that the rollout was less than ideal.

“I thought that was pretty good, because it was the first year we had the test and there was some craziness with the test,” she said. “That gave me something to work with.”


Here’s how the Tennessee Department of Education wants to weight TNReady in evaluations.


Both Skae and Nixon are teacher fellows with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a think tank aligned closely with the State Department of Education. In that capacity, Skae got a firsthand look at some of the test’s reading passages when she reviewed them for the state, and the experience put some of her concerns at bay.

“We were able to say this is disjointed, or this text doesn’t represent our students, or this test is misleading,” she said. “It gives me faith that there are other teachers doing item review.”

State officials are counting on the next few weeks of testing to get the state back on track by resetting its accountability system and earning back the trust of both educators and the public.

“Overall, we are not only confident at the state level, but we are also seeing a renewed confidence in our districts,” McQueen said Thursday. “They have been working every day for this moment, and they are ready to take this test.”

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.