TNReady Testimony

As lawmakers grill McQueen about Tennessee’s testing problems, here are five things we learned

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (center) testifies before Tennessee lawmakers along with Questar CEO Stephen Lazer and Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has pledged to ensure the accuracy of Tennessee’s new standardized test as frustrated lawmakers are seeking explanations for a second straight year of testing problems.

McQueen and her staff offered new details about the latest breakdown on Tuesday in their first appearance before legislators since reporting that the state’s testing company incorrectly scored paper tests for some high school students this year. She called scanning mistakes the culprit and said the state is working closely with Questar to prevent such problems in the future.

A year earlier, the botched rollout of online testing led to the test’s cancellation for grade-schoolers, the firing of Tennessee’s previous test maker, and the decision to phase in online testing over three years.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
McQueen (far left) pauses with her team, including Questar CEO Stephen Lazer (far right), to hear a few final comments from lawmakers.

The state is ultimately responsible for this year’s “failure,” McQueen said, but she let Questar CEO Stephen Lazer take some heat too.

“We at Questar own that it happened,” said Lazer, who sat beside McQueen during the hearing. “It should have been caught (earlier), and it won’t happen again.”

Earlier in the day, Gov. Bill Haslam called the controversy overblown because this year’s errors were discovered as part of the state’s process for vetting scores.

“I think the one thing that’s gotten lost in all this discussion is the process worked,” Haslam told reporters. “It was during the embargo period before any of the results were sent out to students and their families that this was caught.”

The three-hour hearing at the State Capitol was dotted with occasional testy exchanges as lawmakers bemoaned the challenge of rebuilding trust in Tennessee’s problem-plagued assessment. They questioned why teachers, as part of their evaluations, appear to be the only ones being held accountable for this year’s results.

“Are we terminating this contract (with Questar)?” asked Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley who is running for governor. “… Have there been any modifications (to the contract) as a result of this error?”

McQueen responded that the contract hasn’t changed, but that the state’s work plan with Questar has.

“We have had intense conversations between the department and the vendor on quality improvements and expectations,” she said, “and we are moving forward with very specific deadlines.”

The hearing also featured testimony from teachers, several teachers unions, a superintendent, a school board member, and a researcher. Some called for a three-year moratorium on using TNReady scores for accountability purposes; others urged the state to “stay the course.”

Here are five things we learned:

1. The scoring problem came to light because of discrepancies flagged at one school.

As they looked at the data, educators at Blackman High School in Rutherford County noticed that some of their highest-performing students scored low on one standard in English language arts. That raised a red flag since those same students had demonstrated proficiency on that standard in other assessments. The district contacted the state, which requested an investigation from Questar, which traced the discrepancies to a scoring error when scanning paper tests. “The scanning program was incorrect,” Lazer said. “The scanners read the documents right, but the data was in the wrong columns.”

2. Tennessee plans to release scores next year before the new school year begins.

The state has gotten pushback for this year’s protracted scoring schedule that ended this month, more than two months after the school year began. While the scoring process takes longer with a new test, McQueen said the state is committed to getting all scores out by mid-August next year. She said districts will receive their preliminary high school scores by the end of May for inclusion in students’ final grades. Final high school scores will go out in July. For grades 3-8, scores should be delivered by mid-August at the latest, she said.

3. The state is banking on its transition to online testing to expedite high school results.

After the online fiasco that soured TNReady’s first year, McQueen’s decision to slow-walk the state back into online testing also slowed the subsequent scoring and delivery process. But 2018 marks the first school year that all high schoolers will take the test online again — a change that state officials feel confident about after 25 districts successfully made the leap this year. (Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students in grades 3-4.)

4. There is talk of an outside investigation into Tennessee’s testing failures.

Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville asked McQueen if she would object to a top-to-bottom review of Tennessee’s testing challenges from an independent third party such as the state comptroller’s office. “Not at all,” McQueen responded, adding that her department has sought proactively to improve the process.

5. McQueen plans to reconvene her testing task force — again.

One of her first acts as commissioner in 2015 was to form a task force to study concerns about over-testing and recommend improvements. So grave were testing-related issues that McQueen followed up with a second study panel in 2016, even as the state has remained committed to TNReady as the lynchpin of its system of accountability. Now the commissioner wants to reconvene that task force this year to begin looking specifically at 11th-grade testing and diagnostic assessments used by districts, among other things. McQueen told lawmakers that she hopes to have the first meeting by December.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to identify the Rutherford County school where scoring concerns were flagged.

Are Children Learning

Memphis schools in most need of growth see gains, but vast majority of students still not on grade level

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Melody Smith discusses how students at A.B. Hill Elementary grew significantly in test scores.

Three years after one elementary school joined Shelby County Schools’ flagship school improvement program, Principal Melody Smith says growth is proof their efforts are working.

“We came together we battled, we cried, we fought tooth and nail, but in the end we kept our students in the center,” Smith told teachers as they reviewed the results a week before school began.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teachers at A.B. Hill Elementary discuss what makes an ideal school.

A.B. Hill Elementary School, which is part of the Innovation Zone, went from less than 5 percent of students reading on grade level last year to 15 percent in state test scores released Thursday. That jump earned the South Memphis school the state’s highest ranking in growth, but the scores also mean about 85 percent of students still don’t meet state requirements.

The iZone’s two dozen schools have been heralded for how much students have grown since 2012, especially when compared to the state-run Achievement School District, which heavily relies on private charter organizations to boost test scores, and scored the lowest in student growth.

But the challenge is far from over, and school leaders are looking for ways to improve faster.

State leaders generally look at three years of data before determining if academic strategies are working. And in the past three years, the state’s switch to online testing has been tumultuous, which has caused some district leaders and state lawmakers to question the results. But on national tests, Tennessee was held up as a model for student growth compared to surrounding states in a recent Stanford University study — even while the state is still in the bottom half of test scores nationwide.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

Only three schools in the iZone — Westhaven Elementary, Cherokee Elementary, and Ford Road Elementary — have more than 20 percent of students reading on grade level. By comparison, 16 schools surpassed that in science, five in math, and four in social studies.

“There was a lot of movement in our elementary schools,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for schools performing poorly on state tests. But “we’re going to need a laser light focus on our high schools and our middle schools.”

The district created the iZone to boost student achievement in schools performing the worst in the state, all of which are in impoverished neighborhoods. The state Legislature allowed principals to have much more autonomy on which certified teachers they could hire, pumped about $600,000 per school for teacher pay incentives, and added more resources to combat the effects of poverty in the classroom, such as clothes and food closets.

Now, entering its seventh year, the iZone is still outshining the state-run district, and students are still showing more growth compared to their peers across the state who also performed poorly last year. Nine schools in the iZone got the state’s highest ranking for growth, compared to just five last year when the state switched to a new test. (Scroll to the bottom of this story to compare test scores and growth for iZone schools.)

Of the 23 schools in the iZone last year, seven of them were high schools. None of the high schools had more than a third of students on grade level or above in any subject. Four of them — Raleigh Egypt, Melrose, Mitchell, and Hamilton — saw significant growth in at least one subject. Last year was Raleigh Egypt’s first year in the iZone under Shari Meeks, who previously was principal at Oakhaven Middle School.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Clothes closet at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis.

Burt said “the first big thing” that will be done to combat low reading scores in middle and high schools will be to strengthen curriculum. Adding curriculum for younger students played a part in boosting test scores that contributed to growth, leaders said.

Also, new reading specialists will teach a separate class for students who are the furthest behind on top of their normal English class. Before, teachers were responsible for catching up those students, or specialists would take them out of class to work on reading skills.

At the district level, Burt said science, social studies, math, and English advisors will be working more directly with teachers. And principal coaches will have more say in how and where those advisors concentrate their efforts.

Inside the school, Smith, the principal at A.B. Hill Elementary, said having teachers practice more difficult lessons in front of each other helped spur more ideas on how to make the curriculum work for their students.

Teachers said collaboration with others was key to figuring out the best way to improve test scores there. It was common for teachers to invite each other to sit in on lessons and give feedback.

“We would debrief with each other all the time,” said Brenda Pollard, who taught fourth-grade English and social studies. Now she says the foundation has been laid for higher achievement.

“It can be done,” she said. “We’re living proof it can be done.”

Below is a table of how iZone schools fared on state tests. Fields labeled “4.9” were hidden in state data, but are likely below 5 percent.

tar heel trivia

New education research? A good chance it’s from North Carolina.

PHOTO: Creative Commons/Boston Public Library

Barbeque. Basketball rivalries. The Blue Ridge Mountains.

Education research?

It’s something else North Carolina is known for, at least among a subset of social scientists.

“North Carolina has really done something special,” says Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor and the editor of Education Finance and Policy, an academic journal.

“If you look over the last 20 years and focus on the highest quality work, it’s disproportionately work that comes from North Carolina data,” says Dan Goldhaber, an education professor at the University of Washington at Bothell.

North Carolina students aren’t more interesting or easier to find. But a disproportionate share of education research — and therefore, a disproportionate amount of what we know about how certain policies work — comes out of the Tar Heel State.

That’s because North Carolina has kept track of things like student test scores, teacher demographics, and school accountability data since the ‘90s, and also made that information more accessible to researchers than anywhere else.

It works well for those looking for data. But it also underscores a troubling reality: We know much less about how policies play out in places where data is hard to access — and in some cases, may be kept under lock and key for political reasons. That leaves the public to take the best lessons it can from a state that’s home to just 3 percent of the country’s public school students.

“The problem is that what you really want to do is look at lots of places,” said Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “You want to be able to leverage the natural experiments and understand the variation in a way that’s really hard to do in one place.”

Of course, researchers in many cases do work productively with local officials to obtain data. And although it appears that North Carolina is the most commonly studied state in education policy, it is by no means the subject of the majority of academic papers. For instance, seven studies published in Education Finance and Policy over the last two years were focused on North Carolina — more than any other state or district, though over 30 others focused on K-12 schooling in the U.S used national data or data from elsewhere.

North Carolina’s popularity is tied to the fact that it is one of the few states where researchers can get student data (that has been anonymized) from a third party, in this case a research center established in 2000 that operates out of Duke University. In most states, the state education department or other state agency controls that information. Many states and districts lack the resources, streamlined systems, or staff capacity that North Carolina’s center has to meet researchers’ requests.

That center also separates policymakers and the keepers of the data — which may be crucial for ensuring information is made available.

“Not every place wants to open up their data and say, ‘Study what you want,’” said Schwartz. “The risk is that a researcher investigates something or casts it in a way that’s not positive for the school district.”

Goldhaber echoed this. “If you’re talking to somebody who’s involved with politics … they’re going to see everything through a political lens. And that when it comes to evaluating programs and policies, people often don’t see much upside,” he said.

In North Carolina, local researchers realized the importance of tracking students and schools over time, according to Duke’s Clara Muschkin, the faculty director of the data center.

When Goldhaber was studying schools there in the 1990s, he recalled, “There was a real belief that people ought to study these issues, and that was kind of pervasive under Gov. Jim Hunt.”

That extended to research that Hunt’s administration might not like. For instance, Goldhaber was interested in studying whether teachers who attained National Board certification were more effective in the classroom. Hunt was the founding board chair of the organization that awarded those certifications, and Goldhaber’s research had previously shown that certification types didn’t make much difference. But that didn’t stop the administration from providing that data to Goldhaber, who ultimately found North Carolina’s board certified teachers were particularly effective.

It’s impossible to say how often political concerns play a role in keeping data from researchers. When politics is involved, researchers themselves may not know, and if they do, they may not want to publicize it in hopes of eventually working out an agreement. (This reporter has heard frequent complaints about politics getting in the way of data access — but in most cases those are made off the record.)

A more subtle method of interference is when officials decide not to collect data in the first place that researchers might use to reach unflattering conclusions. California, Goldhaber said, is a particular culprit.

The largest state in the country has weakened, or declined to improve, its data systems since 2010, and the information that exists is not readily available to researchers. Governor Jerry Brown has argued that educational data is of little use to teachers and schools, and feeds into a test-focused mentality of schooling.

“You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” wrote Brown in a critique of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which encouraged more data collection. “I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”

Goldhaber has found it difficult to study the state’s education policies.

“There is just basic data that we could not get out of California,” he said, referring to a study he and colleagues are undertaking there.

Some places are becoming more cognizant of concerns about a lack of quality research about their schools. In Washington, D.C., the city council is considering funding an education research group and may make its data widely available to researchers. In California, some advocates and policymakers have pushed for improving its data systems, an idea the state’s likely next governor has backed.

In the meantime, those interested in key education questions — in California, DC, and elsewhere — can always look to North Carolina for answers. That’s largely a good thing, says Goldhaber.

“The fact that we are learning things in North Carolina is tremendously useful for informing policy and practice in other states,” he said.