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

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.”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.