high stakes

There’s always been confusion surrounding Tennessee’s growth model. With a missing year of data, new questions pile on

At a time when scores are about to be used for high-stakes decisions in how to improve Tennessee’s schools, gaps in the state’s data and uncertainty about how scores were derived have left Memphis officials wondering how to interpret the torrent of information.

Last year’s chaotic state testing, which led to the cancellation of the state’s test for grades 3 to 8, left a crucial gap in the data meant to help make decisions about schools and teachers.

School leaders have also said they were puzzled by the state’s methodology in reaching the so-called growth scores upon which districts and schools are judged — particularly by how they arrived at the Memphis district’s low score.

Even those who are paid to sift through the data say they are having trouble getting answers to questions about the growth scores, known as TVAAS. Bill White, chief of planning and accountability for Shelby County Schools, conceded to board members last week that he didn’t know the ins and outs of the complex formula and the changes meant to compensate for the missing data.

“I have personally never been shown all the mathematics behind our data and how this works,” he told board members. “I do know that it has been peer-reviewed and vetted and it’s essentially been held up among those statisticians. But there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that no one has been able to walk us through.”

The confusion has renewed skepticism about the state’s value-added model, which is supposed to help officials identify the impact that schools and teachers have on student performance. The system relies on the state’s data measuring student growth in districts.

Part of the problem is last year’s botched testing, which is having multiple ripple effects throughout the state.

This year, growth scores are comparing 2016-17 test results with the 2014-15 school year, the most recent data available. That throws a wrench in how to assess which school or teacher is responsible for a child’s growth over a two-year period. And for elementary schools, that means there is no data for fourth graders this year since testing in third grade, the first year students take state tests, was canceled.

In addition, one subject was dropped entirely from TVAAS calculations because social studies questions were a trial run for elementary and middle schools students and did not count.

Statisticians for the most part have figured out how to calculate growth even when a state transitions to a new test. But the missing data creates a whole other host of challenges the revisions attempt to account for.

One Memphis charter leader said he still isn’t quite sure how his school even got a score since last year his highest grade level at the school was third grade, the first year of testing.

“It’s such a convoluted formula, it’s hard for us to understand. We’re not sure how we got (our score),” said the charter leader, who declined to be named because he was still seeking answers from the state.

Damian Betebenner, a senior associate at Center for Assessment that regularly consults with state departments, said missing data on top of a testing transition “muddies the water” on results.

“When you look at growth over two years, so how much the student grew from third to fifth grade, then it’s probably going to be a meaningful quantity,” he said. “But to then assert that it isolates the school contribution becomes a pretty tenuous assertion… It adds another thing that’s changing underneath the scene.”

At the same time, TVAAS scores for struggling schools will be a significant factor to determine which improvement tracks they will be be placed on under the state’s new accountability system as outlined in its plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. For some schools, their TVAAS score will be the difference between continuing under a local intervention model or being eligible to enter the state-run Achievement School District. The school growth scores will also determine which charter schools are eligible for a new pot of state money for facilities.

The state has data analysts based across Tennessee to help districts with their questions and provide data simulations for the complex formula that has been replicated in other states.

“Of course, the reason it is complex is because we want it to be fair for educators and therefore capture as much data and nuance as possible – which is discussed at length in the technical documentation,” said a state department spokeswoman.

The state has also published an overview video of how the formula works and details on the recent changes in a 46-page, formula-packed document from SAS, the private company that calculates teacher and school scores for the state.

But as far as knowing how the state gets from A to Z, White said he still has questions.

“I’ve had some questions about getting access to certain data myself,” said White, who routinely interprets data for the district. “We would like a lot more access to what goes into TVAAS.” (He later declined to elaborate.)

He’s not the only one. When the Tennessee Education Association unsuccessfully sued Knox County Schools over its use of TVAAS in awarding teacher bonuses, access to data on how the scores were calculated was central to the association’s argument that the district denied teachers due process, said Rick Colbert, TEA’s general counsel.

When Colbert attempted to subpoena technical documents on the calculations, SAS blocked it partially because the request would divulge “trade secrets.”

“When they’re called upon to defend it you get a lot of general statements but you can’t get a lot of information to see if you can back that up,” Colbert said. “There’s so much about TVAAS that can’t be explained.”

Board member Mike Kernell called it a double standard and asked White last week if the district could request a demonstration of the complicated formula.

“I think the state department of education ought to show its work if they’re asking children to show their work,” he said.

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.