TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.


Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come


But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Numbers game

Colorado is about to release a torrent of test results. Here are four storylines worth watching.

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

The state education department is scheduled Thursday to publicly release a mammoth amount of data detailing how Colorado students performed on last spring’s standardized tests.

We’ll get to dive into state, district and school results from English, math, science and social studies tests, the PSAT and SAT, and student academic growth, which tracks how much students learn each year compared to their academic peers.

The data — beloved or loathed depending on which educator you ask — is supposed to gauge how well students grasp the state’s academic standards that are designed to prepare them for either college or a career.

The state also uses the results, along with other factors such as graduation rates, to issue quality ratings for schools and districts. And in some instances, teachers are rated based on the data.

Here is background and some storylines to keep in mind in advance of the release:

First a reminder of where we stand:

Three years ago, the state made a monumental shift in its testing system. Colorado was one of about a dozen states to drop paper-and-pencil standardized tests in favor of a new multi-state computer-based test.

The PARCC tests would measure critical thinking, a major component of the state’s new academic standards, which devalued rote memorization.

Prior to the first release, school officials in Colorado and across the nation warned that test scores would likely be low considering the newness of the academic standards and tests.

Indeed, they were.

In 2015, only 43 percent of fourth graders met the state’s expectations on the English test. Math was worse: Only 37 percent of third graders were able to complete math equations at grade level.

In 2016, the state saw a slight uptick in scores, mirroring national trends.

However, state officials worried about how far behind students with learning disabilities were compared to their peers.

Here’s a look at the changes in test scores in English and math:

English

Math

 

With three years of data from PARCC, we can — finally — talk about trends. But what are we going to learn that we didn’t already know?

For the last two years, state and school district officials have warned about two things: First, don’t compare the results of PARCC to that of previous standardized tests. Second, they said we needed three years of data to pinpoint trends in student performance.

Why three years?

Derek Briggs, a professor at School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder who also sits on the technical advisory board for PARCC, said one reason why we might need three years of data is because of exaggerated bumps sometimes found in the second year of a new standardized test.

“One explanation for this sort of trend was that it would take teachers/schools a year to figure out the emphasis on the new assessment, so in the first year, the alignment between teaching and instruction isn’t optimal, so student performance in the first year is depressed,” he said in an email. “Then in the second year, it snaps back up once instruction and assessment are better aligned.”

Briggs added that so far, no state that updated its test to align to the Common Core State Standards like Colorado did had a second year bump.

So, now we have three years of data: What can we say?

It’s difficult to make sweeping declarations about state trends — especially in a local control state where so many decisions about what students learn is made at the school and district level.

But Juan D’Brot, a senior associate at the Delaware-based Center for Assessment, said that at the three-year mark, school officials and parents alike can start to better understand what’s working or not at individual schools.

“It can serve as a gut check about a school’s general performance over time,” D’Brot said. “If you have three points that are moving upward or constantly moving downward, we can quickly create a story around that.”

It’s more difficult to draw conclusions if a school’s results are less consistent, he said.

And there are some state-level benefits.

“This trend data can help the state evaluate their own efforts to work with districts and schools,” he said. This is especially valuable when school leaders use a variety of data points including patterns of student growth.

The state is suppressing data in an effort to “protect student privacy.” How much will be redacted?

Colorado was once considered one of the most education data-friendly states. But beginning with the first release of PARCC data in 2015, the state began blacking out more school-level data than it had in the past.

The effects of the new so-called “suppression rules” were even more pronounced in the state’s 2016 release. The state shielded roughly 4,000 data points that year, frustrating education reform advocates who say this data helps parents make better decisions about schools.

Stay tuned to see what we won’t learn about school performance due to these rules after Thursday’s release.

After two years of delayed and drawn-out data releases, the state is giving us everything on time and all at once. But the promise of getting data back quicker is still elusive.

In 2015 and 2016, testing data dribbled out of the state education department over several months — state-level results first, then school level, then student growth data. This was a departure from a decades-long routine of releasing test score data in August.

On Thursday, the state will release almost everything all at once. (District and school performance data disaggregated by different student groups is expected within a month.) This is a major victory for the state and the makers of PARCC because one of the longest-running criticisms of the test was how long it took to get data back to schools.

Schools received their results in June, the earliest data has gotten back to the schools since the state switched to PARCC.

But the timeline still falls short of one of the promises of new tests and the demands of the State Board of Education, which going forward wants data back to schools within 30 days.

Is the state’s gradual move away from PARCC at the high school level working to curb the opt out movement?

In 2015, Colorado became one of the nation’s epicenters for the testing opt out movement. Thousands of high schoolers, backed by their parents, refused to take the PARCC exams, claiming they served no educational purpose.

In some cases, entire schools sat empty during the state’s testing window.

In response, lawmakers eliminated some high school tests and changed others. In 2016, more high school sophomores took the state’s tests than the year before. Policymakers hope additional changes at the ninth grade level, set to take effect next spring, will move even more families back to the state’s testing system.

Will the trend continue? We’ll find out on Thursday.

And finally, here’s a roundup of previous coverage you might find helpful:

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”