TNReady preview

The early data is in. Tennessee scores dropped for grades 3-8, too.

PHOTO: TDOE
Members of the Tennessee State Board of Education listen to a July presentation about TNReady scores by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

Get ready for lower test scores for Tennessee’s younger students, state officials said Friday.

Preliminary results show that scores fell this year after the state introduced a new standardized test. Only about a third of students in grades 3-8 scored on or above grade level in English language arts, while a slightly higher percentage passed in math.

The decreases, which mirrored last year’s results for high schoolers, were expected after students took a new test that state officials say is harder and aligned to more rigorous academic standards.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen emphasized that the state’s TNReady assessment offers a more accurate picture of student performance that is consistent with national testing.

“We want our families and our students to know they should not be discouraged. We are not going backwards,” McQueen told the State Board of Education during a morning conference call.

“Like last year with our (high school) tests, this is a reset moment for grades 3-8,” she said.

The data reviewed on Friday is preliminary and the full scores won’t be released until the fall. But the results, discussed as the State Board set the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level, offer an early glimpse at how younger students did.

The new proficiency cutoffs mark a milestone in Tennessee’s journey to be more honest and transparent about student performance. In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a blistering rebuke of Tennessee for saying that most of its students were performing well, even as results from National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed otherwise.

Ever since, Tennessee has been raising its academic standards and moving to a test that state officials say is more rigorous, harder to game, and aligned to the tougher benchmarks. The graphic below shows how Tennessee had closed the gap between state and national comparisons as of 2015, before moving to TNReady.

There were bumps along the way. The state has had to set testing thresholds for TNReady twice because only high schoolers got to take TNReady during its inaugural year. McQueen canceled the 2016 test for grades 3-8 and fired the testmaker due to technical and logistical problems as most districts tried to move to online testing.

State Board Chairman F. Fielding Rolston called the new scoring benchmarks, known as cut scores, “a significant step forward.”

“This is really the result of 10 years of hard work to get the standards where they need to be,” he said. “We’ve increased expectations. We’ve approved standards. Now we’re setting cut scores.”

The cut scores are based on expectations determined in July by a panel of Tennessee educators, plus subsequent analysis of their recommendations by state experts.

You can find the newly approved cut scores for grades 3-8 here.

A new look

When the state provides full score reports to parents, students and teachers this fall, they will look different than in previous years. Scores will fall into four performance levels: mastered, on track, approaching grade level, and below grade level. Under the state’s previous TCAP test, scores were described as advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic.

It’s all part of a redesigned score report unveiled last year by the State Department of Education. Officials say the new design will help students, parents and educators understand better what scores say about their students’ college readiness, and offer tips to help students improve.

Statewide scores for high schoolers were already released in July. District-level results for those students, in their second year of TNReady testing, will be released next week.

Face time

On the hot seat: McQueen to explain latest testing blunders to angry Tennessee lawmakers

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is under fire for her oversight of the state's standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its rollout in 2016.

Facing mounting pressure over testing problems that have plagued Tennessee for three years, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen goes before lawmakers Wednesday to explain what went wrong this time — and what the state is doing about it.

McQueen is scheduled to appear at noon before a joint legislative hearing of several committees, and she’s expected to recount some of the same things she shared in an email Tuesday evening with district superintendents.

The former classroom teacher and university dean said she was “completely devastated” Tuesday morning when technical problems derailed online testing for a second state day.

She announced a three-day extension of this spring’s online testing window to May 9 to provide schools with more flexibility because of the problems.

She reported that, despite the snafus, more than 120,000 tests were completed on Monday and Tuesday.

And she was contrite. “I want to personally apologize to each of you and to your many staff, teachers, and students who have been handling these issues with patience and a positive attitude. We are very grateful,” she wrote.

But the reception on Capitol Hill in Nashville is not expected to be friendly, even as McQueen has numerous fans there for sticking by major reforms approved by the legislature in 2010 as part of Tennessee’s First to the Top education overhaul.

This week, lawmakers have gotten an earful from educators and parents angry that TNReady wasted two school days for older students who were supposed to take the standardized test online. Only last fall, McQueen had assured lawmakers she’d put an end to TNReady problems when scoring errors emerged in the second year of testing.

The anger reached a boiling point on Tuesday, with House Democrats calling for McQueen to step down and Republicans discussing last-minute legislation that would clip TNReady’s wings.

“We’re fed up,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus. “Commissioner McQueen had one thing she had to do this year, and she failed. We need another commissioner.”

But lawmakers can’t fire McQueen. Only Gov. Bill Haslam can do that, and he’s the one who hired her in late 2014. The Republican governor also has championed his education commissioner through good and bad — including the failed rollout of online testing in 2016 and Tennessee’s big gains on national tests from 2011 to 2015.

Asked about the legislative saber-rattling, a Haslam spokeswoman said the governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen” and called for patience while the state and Questar investigate a “deliberate attack” by hackers on the testing company’s data system — the alleged source of Tuesday’s testing problems.

"The governor has complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen."Jennifer Donnals, spokeswoman

“This was an outside attack on the testing system, and the system worked as designed to protect private student information,” the spokeswoman, Jennifer Donnals, said in a statement. “Eliminating testing as a response would only serve to accomplish the very disruption the hackers intended. The governor understands and shares the frustration of teachers, students and parents and appreciates their patience while this attack is being investigated.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers barreling toward the finish line of this year’s legislative session huddled to seek legislative remedies to this week’s testing failures via a bill sponsored by Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown. One amendment would require the state to administer only paper-and-pencil tests in future years. A second would require the state Department of Education to “hold harmless” students, teachers, schools, and districts for the results of this year’s TNReady tests, which are incorporated into teacher evaluations and students’ final grades and determine which low-performing schools will face intervention.

TNReady shockwaves

Memphis school board discusses dropping TNReady scores from teacher decisions after testing failures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board chairwoman Shante Avant.

School board members in Memphis on Tuesday evening expressed their outrage after a second day of state testing failures, with calls ranging from creating a local version of the high-stakes exam to not using TNReady scores in the district’s own evaluations of its teachers.

“If the state can’t be of assistance to us in that process,” of teacher evaluations, board chairwoman Shante Avant said, “I don’t think they need to be a part of the process.”

Board member Teresa Jones said Shelby County Schools ought to look to alternative measures to evaluate teachers.

“I don’t think we can make human capital decisions and have evaluations until we have a test that is actually functioning at a level that we can trust,” Jones said.

The board did not vote on changing teacher evaluations. The angry declarations came after two days of glitches in state testing in Tennessee — first with login problems and then what the state called a “deliberate attack” on its testing vendor’s data center. This week’s testing failures is the latest in the chain of a tumultuous multiyear rollout of the state’s new online test.

TNReady scores are factored into teacher evaluations to show student growth and mastery. Shelby County Schools uses those teacher evaluation scores to determine pay raises and school assignments, among other uses. The test scores are also the basis for state intervention strategies for low-performing schools, but school board members do not have control over that.

Though the state Department of Education assured district leaders student information was not compromised, board members were not convinced.

“It seems to me that not only process has been compromised, but the test scores have been compromised as well,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “I don’t know how any reasonable person could think this is a way to do high-stakes testing.”

And one board member even said the district should create its own test to show student growth and achievement instead of relying on the state.

“We owe it to our teachers, to our parents, to our students to say ‘no more’ until the state of Tennessee can give us a test that we can trust and that we know will follow through from the beginning to the end,” said Stephanie Love. “I think it’s time for us to come up with our own test to know where our children are, where they need to go and a plan to get them where they need to be so they can graduate and be successful.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the disruption of state testing impacts students and how they approach the test, which could ultimately lower their scores. All high school students are testing online this year, and districts had the option of including middle school students in the switch from paper this year. High school principals in Shelby County Schools have discretion over when they will schedule exams during the state’s testing window.

“Test results are good to see benchmarks where kids are, but we should have multiple measures to determine how a school is doing and what kids are learning,” he told board members. “Putting all your eggs in one basket and that basket breaks, it just creates a lot of concern.”

Earlier in the day, some state legislators echoed board members’ concerns by calling for the immediate resignation of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Another said he planned to file a bill scrapping the online version of the test and making sure the test results aren’t used in Tennessee’s accountability system for teachers and schools.