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.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly dip — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores were mostly flat or dipped this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance declined in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered — in the midst of testing — that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things. (Editor’s note: After this story’s initial publication, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen revealed what the analysis found. Here’s that story.)

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not as much in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.