First Person

My students were ready. Tennessee’s tests weren’t.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

“The most important thing that we focus on all year long is becoming better readers and writers,” I told my kids all year. “This test can show us how we’ve grown, and we should do our best on it because that’s what we do on anything we do: our best. We are ready.”

I mean what I say to my students. We were ready. Even after the crash of TNReady in 2016, my students and I entered this testing season confident.

The problem was, the test was not ready.

I want it to be ready. I want my students to be able to demonstrate what they’ve worked so hard to learn. I want them to feel pride in accomplishing the tasks before them. I want them to be excited to see their growth. I want to pore over those results myself and learn how I can better serve my students.

I want all the things that the Tennessee Department of Education says that it wants from TNReady. But what I do not want is a test that disrupts learning instead of measuring it.

I don’t want to build my students up for a test that doesn’t happen when and how we’ve prepared for it to happen. I do not want to rush my students into a computer lab and be sure they’re all prepared only to sit and wait for 20 minutes to log in, or to end up leaving the lab without testing because the system is down.

I don’t want to start another sentence in my classroom with, “I know we were supposed to test today, but …”

Ten minutes into an engaging lesson plan I’ve created on the fly because of canceled testing, I don’t want to stop and tell my students to get ready because Nextera, the testing system, is working again.

I don’t want to rush my kids through lunch because they have to hurry up and test so the next group can get in the lab.

I don’t want to tell them we have to push back our literature discussion groups because we’ve had to test for a week longer than planned — or that they can’t go to the library to check out books because the testing schedule simply makes it impossible.

I don’t want to stand in front of my students and tell them we’re going to try again even though most of them haven’t been able to submit their tests for the second time. Even though several of them have watched their test answers disappear. Even though we have all sat in the computer lab watching the “spinny ball of death” more than we’ve seen the green check mark that indicates success.

I don’t want to call the help desk for Nextera and hear, “Your estimated call time is more than 30 minutes” when there are 30 students sitting in a computer lab with “502 Gateway” error messages across their screens. I do not want to wonder why the review screen says “0 questions answered of 0 possible questions.” What does that even mean?

When three students try to submit their tests five different times but can’t because the system says they haven’t answered Question 29 even though they have, I don’t want to say again, “I don’t know, but don’t worry. We’ll fix it.” Will we?

I’m tired of reassuring my students that the test really is fixed this time. They don’t believe me. I don’t believe me.

I don’t want to see my students, sitting after the system has gone down, drawing cartoons of airplanes labeled “TNReady” crashing into mountains. I do not want to see them, when finished with their tests and waiting to submit them, typing extemporaneous essays about how TNReady has wasted their time.

I don’t want to overhear my students exchange guesses about the probability of whether the test will work today — as they walk to the lab to take a test that is supposed to reflect their learning and my teaching.

And I don’t want to try to find a delicate, non-manipulative way to try to communicate to students, “These results don’t count for your grades, our school, or our district, but they do count for me, so please try.”

I certainly don’t want to hear that the test my students took didn’t have anything to do with what they learned all year because, turns out, they took the test for a different grade. And I don’t want to read tweets and emails from the Tennessee Department of Education that treat these issues as regrettable but minor inconveniences.

I do not want to hear excuses or listen to anyone insist that these problems do not interfere with the validity of the results. I do not want these results factored into a number used to quantify my effect as a teacher.

But all of that has happened. I also understand that testing is federally mandated, and I agree that tests can provide important feedback. So here’s what I do want: A test that is reliable. A test that is developmentally appropriate in length and respectful of the instructional time students lose to testing. A test that provides timely and detailed data.

And I want my students to take that test, and for my colleagues and I to be held accountable for it, only once it’s actually, truly, ready.

Rachel Phillips is a seventh grade ELA teacher at Shafer Middle School in Gallatin, Tennessee.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Testing ESSA

One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

PHOTO: Sue Barr/Getty Images

After months of talks, federal and Tennessee education officials have come to terms on how to identify and address the state’s lowest-performing schools in light of last spring’s problem-plagued student assessment program.

Their agreement, which navigates conflicting state and federal laws over the use of test results, means the state Education Department will release three lists of challenged schools in the coming weeks.

One list — Tennessee’s highly anticipated roster of “priority schools,” which perform in the bottom 5 percent — will exclude scores from last school year’s beleaguered TNReady assessment. Issued every three years, this roster will serve as the basis for determining state interventions and supports for at least the next year.

Two other lists — both of which are new — will include those results in deciding which schools will receive additional federal funding.

The revised framework, which is designed to hold schools and districts accountable on student achievement, is more complex than initially planned for meeting the standards of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under the 2015 law, Tennessee is required to factor in its most recent standardized test results when it comes to school accountability. But technical problems that disrupted computerized exams last spring prompted the Legislature’s order to disregard 2017-18 TNReady scores when compiling Tennessee’s priority school list, the state’s highest-stakes vehicle for improving underperforming schools by making them eligible for interventions such as state takeover and charter conversion.

The dueling laws have required thoughtful discussions and additional footwork, according to Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Education Department.

“The U.S. Department of Education was clear in our conversations that the last-minute legislation did not change the federal requirement for states to use 2017-18 data in accountability determinations,” Gast told Chalkbeat last week.

As a result, to comply with the emergency state laws, the upcoming priority list will be based mostly on test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17 — not last school year — when charting the state’s school improvement strategies, interventions, and investments.

To satisfy federal law, a new CSI list, which stands for Comprehensive Support and Improvement, will identify the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools based on test results from all three years. This roster will determine opportunities for additional federal funding through several school improvement grants.

State officials emphasize that the CSI list, which will number about 85 schools, will have significant overlap with the state’s priority school list.

The other new accountability list, called ATSI for Additional Targeted Support and Improvement, will be based solely on last school year’s TNReady data. This list will identify schools with the lowest performance across student groups such as black, Hispanic, or Native Americans, or those who are economically disadvantaged, English learners, or have disabilities. ATSI replaces, for now, the state’s previously planned “focus school” list under its original ESSA plan.

“There is no adverse action that comes from being on the ATSI or CSI list,” Gast said. “The only changes for these schools is they will now be eligible for additional federal funding to support their students, and the department will be available to provide guidance to support improvement.”

"I think one of the frustrations for everyone is that the federal DOE is less flexible when adjustments need to be made based on real-world situations in each state."Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville

The state began rolling out its new school accountability details a few weeks ago, catching some district leaders off guard with the news of additional lists to keep up with.

“This kind of came at us out of the blue,” said Paul Changas, who heads research and assessment for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. “Given the complexity of the new accountability system, the addition of new categories will likely make our training efforts even more challenging.”

Rep. Eddie Smith, who sponsored the emergency TNReady laws, acknowledged that multiple lists may cause some confusion. But the Knoxville Republican said it’s the best way to keep fallout from the state’s testing problems from disrupting the flow of federal resources to struggling schools.

“While we do not want schools punished, we do want to make sure that any support needed by these schools is received,” Smith said.

He added: “I think one of the frustrations for everyone is that the federal DOE is less flexible when adjustments need to be made based on real-world situations in each state.”

Tennessee’s amended ESSA accountability plan, which federal officials signed off on in mid-August, will be in effect for the next year and possibly for several years to come. Because state law now prevents 2017-18 TNReady results from being factored in to most state accountability work going forward, Tennessee will have to submit another ESSA amendment for 2018-19 and beyond.

Below, find details about the lists of schools being released this month by the state, including the reward list that recognizes schools achieving the highest performance or progress.

Tennessee School Accountability Designations

List Purpose Eligibility What will happen
Priority Schools Identify and improve schools struggling with overall student achievement, in compliance with state law Ranked in state’s bottom 5 percent on student achievement based on 2015-16 and 2016-17 tests and did not earn overall TVAAS growth score of 4 or 5 in both 2015-16 and 2016-17 or 2016-17 and 2017-18; or has a graduation rate of less than 67 percent for the 2017-18 school year. Schools previously on the 2015 priority list will remain on the intervention track assigned to them based on their 2016-17 performance, and no schools will be assigned to the Achievement School District based on 2017-18 data. All schools new to the 2018 list will be placed on the Delta track, which requires da local school improvement plan in collaboration with the state. Locally authorized charter schools on the list are subject to charter revocation and closure at the end of the 2018-19 school year. State-authorized charter schools making the 2018 and 2021 priority lists will close at the end of the 2021-22 school year.
CSI Schools (Comprehensive Support and Improvement) Identify and improve schools struggling with overall student achievement, in compliance with federal law Ranked in state’s bottom 5 percent on student achievement based on 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 tests and earned a score of 3 or less in 2016-17 and/or 2017-18 under the state’s new school rating system; or had a graduation rate of less than 67 percent for the 2017-18 school year. (All schools in the Achievement School District are designated for CSI.) Newly named CSI schools will work with the state’s Office of School Improvement and are eligible for additional funding through federal school improvement grants.
ATSI Schools (Additional Targeted Support and Improvement) Identify and improve schools struggling with student achievement among one or more student groups, in compliance with federal law An overall score of 1 or less under the state’s new school rating system and ranks in state’s bottom 5 percent for at least one student group (i.e., black, Hispanic, or Native American; economically disadvantaged; English learners; students with disabilities); or ranks in bottom 5 percent for two or more accountability subgroups or racial/ethnic groups. Newly named ATSI schools will work with the state’s Office of School Improvement and its Centers for Regional Excellence and will be eligible for additional federal support. (Priority and/or CSI schools are not eligible for ATSI.)
Reward Schools Identify and reward schools with the highest performance or extraordinary progress in student achievement An overall score of 3 or higher on the state’s new school rating system. Schools are not eligible if any student group performs in the state’s bottom 5 percent for that group. Special recognition