Taking a hit

By getting testing wrong again, Tennessee could undo what it may be getting right

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam attends a Knoxville school assembly in 2016 to celebrate Tennessee outpacing almost all other states in gains on a national science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

After languishing for decades, Tennessee is now considered a pioneer in education improvement circles, while its standing on national tests has risen from the bottom to the middle of the pack over the last decade.

Quick to embrace higher academic standards, the state also explored new strategies to transform struggling schools and adopted a controversial teacher evaluation system grounded in student performance. With its 2010 federal Race to the Top award, it poured millions of dollars into teacher training and coaching.

So it was dumbfounding this spring when a third straight year of problems emerged with TNReady, the standardized test that’s the centerpiece of Tennessee’s policy agenda aimed at becoming a national leader in student achievement.

After a failed rollout of computerized testing in 2016 and scoring issues in 2017, the stakes had never been higher to administer the test successfully.

But on the very first day, thousands of students struggled to advance past the login page — and things went downhill from there. Subsequent testing days were marred by a cyber attack, a fiber optic cable cut by a dump truck in rural Tennessee, and a systems design error that made 1,400 students take the wrong exam.

By the time the state limped across the finish line last week, technical glitches had interrupted more than half of the original testing days, and state lawmakers had passed emergency legislation weakening how the results can be used.

“We’ve failed significantly with TNReady — not once, not twice, but three times,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democratic candidate for governor and member of a House education committee. “It hurts systems that are already beset with credibility problems.”

Now, many stakeholders worry that public outcry over this year’s sloppy testing will unravel years of carefully crafted accountability work in public education.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the front podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 25, the last day of the 2018 legislative session, as the chamber’s education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year’s TNReady scores.

An early sign came when lawmakers stepped in before testing was even finished to shield students, teachers, schools, and districts from the state’s score-driven accountability systems.

“It happened so quickly and passed with such a large majority that it was jarring to those of us who thought we had some serious momentum with the systems we’ve been working on for years,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, leader of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force.

“It’s created this environment of instability going into a gubernatorial election year, and you begin to wonder what else could be wiped away.”

Politics of education

Over the last 16 years, Tennessee has managed to follow the same general roadmap for improving its schools — first under the administration of Democrat Phil Bredesen and now under Republican Bill Haslam.

But this year’s near meltdown of testing has put Haslam’s administration on the defense in the governor’s final year in office.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and her team are trying to see if the test results are valid and how they can be used. They’re also in daily talks with the U.S. Department of Education over whether the state’s emergency TNReady laws conflict with a federal law that requires student achievement-based accountability.

Haslam will do damage control this week after returning from an overseas economic development trip. He’s expected to beat the drum about the role of a state test as a measuring stick to ensure that children are learning and taxpayers get their money’s worth for the billions spent on schools.

McQueen offered an early glimpse at the messaging late last week. She said this year’s poor delivery of a computerized exam under testing company Questar does not mean that the exam itself is bad.

"We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

“We have an exceptional test,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday, adding that the fix needs to come with how testing is administered. She added that it would be a mistake to change course on the state’s education agenda.

“The three things that we have focused on — high standards, rigorous assessment, and greater accountability — have been the backbone of much of our success in Tennessee,” she said. “We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not.”

Tension with testing

Indeed, national test results have been encouraging. Tennessee’s ACT average finally hit a modest milestone last year, and scores on several national tests are up since 2011. Just months ago, the state was basking in the glow of a massive Stanford University analysis showing Tennessee’s academic gains have outpaced the rest of the South — and much of the nation.

But testing that exceeds federal requirements has taken its toll on school communities, partly because districts have introduced extra exams to make sure students and teachers are on target leading up to TNReady.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“I think we’ve gone dramatically overboard with testing,” said Dan Lawson, a superintendent in Tullahoma. “Everybody felt a very heavy hand on them when it came to this year’s assessment.”

That tension bubbled up last month during legislative hearings amid the online testing interruptions.

“What we have created, I’m afraid, is a culture of testing instead of a culture of teaching,” Rep. Sheila Butt told McQueen.

The Republican from Columbia went on to read a letter from one teacher: “I’m not sure this year if we’re actually wanting academic accountability,” the teacher wrote, “or if we’re merely testing our students’ resilience in the face of obstacles and our teachers’ patience with the new system.”

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs her chamber’s education committee, offered another viewpoint.

“I remember a retired teacher telling me one time that she just wanted to be left alone, close the door, and she would go into her classroom and teach. And I wanted to tell her that that’s how we got to be 46th in overall student achievement,” said the Somerville Republican, “because we did not know what was going on in that classroom.”

“We have got to know,” Gresham concluded. “We have got to be able to evaluate and know what to do going forward.”

Joshua Glazer, a professor and researcher at George Washington University, said it’s understandable that frustrations with TNReady could amplify concerns about testing in general. But he cautioned against any knee-jerk reaction that minimizes assessments.

“We haven’t gotten the testing and accountability thing right yet, for sure,” said Glazer, who has followed Tennessee education policy. “But that doesn’t mean we want to go back to the 1980s when everybody could do whatever they wanted and we saw massive inequality in opportunity as a result.”

For more on how Tennessee got here, check out why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.

Testing

Memphis school board softens request to reform state’s troubled TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Shelby County Schools board plans to present its annual wish list to Memphis-area state legislators on Dec. 17.

The board governing Tennessee’s largest school district is asking state legislators to rely less on the standardized test known as TNReady, which has endured a tumultuous online rollout since 2016.

The school board’s annual wish list for state lawmakers dampens stronger language the Shelby County Schools board had proposed last week to “eliminate” the state’s “use and reliance” on the test.

Instead, the Memphis board wants state lawmakers to require the Tennessee Department of Education “to use multiple and/or alternative methods of accountability beyond TNReady that more accurately and reliably assess” student knowledge of state academic standards.

“Much of the trouble with state testing “was around the implementation, not necessarily the tool itself,” said board member Kevin Woods. Board members are scheduled to make their annual presentation to Memphis area lawmakers later this month.

TNReady is the state’s high stakes test that measures student academic performance, starting with third-graders. High schoolers take the online version. In the past, TNReady results have determined teacher raises and evaluations, employment, or whether to place low-performing schools in the state-run Achievement School District. But last year lawmakers temporarily barred using TNReady results for making those decisions after technical glitches interrupted testing for thousands of students.

Leaders in the state’s education department have said that despite the repeated technical difficulties, the test itself is still reliable and a good measure of student progress. In recent years, the state has overhauled requirements for student learning to make them more rigorous. Raising the bar is something the state and Shelby County Schools’ leader Dorsey Hopson agree on — even though Hopson said he had “no confidence” in the online testing system.


Related: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much.


Testing students is essential for measuring student progress, said Deidra Brooks, the chief of staff for Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization. She urged the board to specify an alternative “that would provide parents with an equitable and transparent way for parents to see how their students are doing.”

The board’s legislative agenda noted a previous bill that failed last year would have allowed districts to use the college admissions test ACT instead of TNReady for high school students. The bill also would have limited the time and number of tests students take during the school year.

Also included in the school board’s legislative agenda was the Memphis school board’s desire to have significantly more say in how charter schools are authorized and overseen.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol stands in downtown Nashville.

For example, the board said it should be able to decide which neighborhoods are “oversaturated” with schools and prevent a charter school from opening there. Many charter and traditional schools have struggled to enroll enough students as the population has fallen and more schools have opened.

The board is also looking for ways to streamline the authorizing process. It wants to cap the number of charter schools a district can authorize each year, and get rid of a provision that allows prospective charter operators to amend their application during the approval process.

Once schools are authorized, board members want the ability to “take interim measures, short of full revocation” when a charter school is not following legal guidelines or meeting academic standards during its 10-year-charter duration.

The board also continues to oppose a state voucher system that would give public money to parents to use for private school tuition. Governor-elect Bill Lee has expressed support for vouchers, which have failed in the state legislature for about a decade. Lee’s commitment to promote the initiative was underlined by hiring Tony Niknejad as his policy director, who was the former Tennessee leader of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

Below is the full legislative agenda board members will share with state lawmakers who represent the Memphis area Monday, Dec. 17. The school board’s presentation is scheduled for 1:35 p.m. at the Pink Palace Museum, 3050 Central Ave.

shift

With new school turnaround model, Tennessee takes lessons learned in Memphis to Chattanooga

PHOTO: Hamilton County Department of Education
A teacher works with students at a Chattanooga elementary school.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee has launched a third model for improving struggling schools — based in part on lessons that have emerged from the state’s first two efforts over the past decade.

The new Partnership Network, now in its first year under a five-year agreement between the state and Hamilton County Schools, is focused on five schools in Chattanooga where student achievement has languished for decades.

The collaborative model takes a page from learnings garnered mostly in Memphis. The city is the hub of the state’s two other turnaround models, one of which involves wresting control of low-performing schools from the local district.

“I would describe this model not as a state takeover, but a state pushing” toward a different style of intervention, said state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen of the Partnership Network.

All three turnaround options are outlined in Tennessee’s plan under the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law requires each state to come up with a strategy for improving chronically underperforming schools.

Most promising so far has been Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a district-led program that provides struggling Memphis schools with extra state-funded resources and charter-like autonomy.

The other approach, the state-run Achievement School District, has been lackluster in performance and heavy-handed in its execution, but state officials are hopeful it’s a late bloomer, especially under the new leadership of the iZone’s former chief. Known as the ASD, the district has taken control of dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and matched them with charter operators.

State officials once had considered the cluster of Chattanooga schools for ASD takeover. But they came up with the partnership approach as a third way, wherein a seven-member advisory board named by both partners oversees the work of the mini-school district comprising 2,300 students.


One Chattanooga school was once a heralded example of successful turnaround. What happened?


The partnership model, while unique in its structure, will only be as good as its outcomes, McQueen emphasized Monday during the advisory board’s second meeting.

Since embracing school improvement as part of a 2010 overhaul of K-12 public education, Tennessee has committed to a series of independent studies to track results with an eye toward data-driven refinements and new strategies. The research is the basis for a policy brief released this week outlining the state’s guiding principles for effective school turnaround. The Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a collaboration between Vanderbilt University and the state education department, developed the guidelines.

There is no magic bullet, said Gary T. Henry, the lead researcher behind the brief and a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt.

He said the work of fixing struggling schools is “the most challenging work in public education today.” That’s because it really does take a village, he said, that includes the local school district, the state, federal dollars, and a sustained commitment from all parties to attack the problems from multiple angles.

Vanderbilt researcher Gary T. Henry and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin talk about school turnaround work with leaders of Hamilton County’s new Partnership Network.

In addition, there must be a willingness to treat low-performing schools as special cases that merit additional resources and higher pay for effective teachers and administrators — something that school districts are loathe to do and that defies political gravity, Henry said.

It also means building a district-within-a-district organizational structure dedicated to school improvement; removing barriers to improvement such as high teacher and leader turnover rates; increasing capacity for effective teaching and leadership with supports such as curriculum, training, and mentoring; and establishing school practices and processes — like opportunities for teacher collaboration — that promote continuity and stability.

“Doing one or two of these will not necessarily change the lives of students and teachers and principals. But doing all five intelligently and in focused fashion can,” Henry said.

The work must recognize, too, the profound impact of poverty on the students who generally attend low-performing schools, said Sharon Griffin, the former iZone chief hired last spring to run the state-run ASD.

“Sometimes just showing up (to school) is a miracle,” Griffin said of kids who bring adverse and chronically stressful experiences into schools and classrooms.

A nationally recognized turnaround leader, Griffin told the new Chattanooga advisory board about the improvement work she has “lived and breathed” as a Memphis teacher, principal, and iZone superintendent. She urged them to get inside of schools, stay student-focused in their oversight of the Partnership Network, and plan for a marathon instead of a sprint.

“The work can’t stop. The sense of urgency cannot stop,” she said.