Tennessee’s third-largest district voted Wednesday night to draft a letter of “no confidence” to the Tennessee Department of Education, Gov. Bill Haslam, and Knoxville-area lawmakers.
The letter from Knox County Schools board is the latest in a backlash against the state over how the department evaluates teachers and schools.
Problems with pre-K and kindergarten teacher portfolio evaluations became the issue that pushed board Chairwoman Patti Bounds to say the department “still takes no ownership” of its mistakes. Portfolios are used to evaluate educators who teach pre-K, kindergarten, and subjects not included in TNReady standardized testing. Portfolios can include videos showing student progress during the year.
Earlier this week, the superintendents of the state’s two largest districts, Memphis and Nashville, wrote to Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to pause state testing until after the election because “educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels.”
Tennessee has taken pride in the progress of its students on national tests and has toughened up its requirements for student learning and evaluating teachers. But the foundation for its analysis, the state’s new online test, TNReady, has been fraught with technical setbacks since it was introduced in 2016.
State lawmakers were so concerned about the problems with TNReady that they passed legislation ensuring the scores would not be used to negatively impact teachers, students, or schools. School-level scores could be released as early as late next week.
Some Knoxville board members wanted to echo the sentiment of Memphis and Nashville superintendents about TNReady, but settled on highlighting the more timely portfolio issue, Bounds said.
“The portfolio system is a mess,” she told Chalkbeat. “The Department of Education has had multiple years of failure.”
The board will likely meet Tuesday in a special meeting to approve a letter, she said.
First-year problems for the teacher portfolios have resulted in error messages or questionable low scores for teachers. It is unclear how many teachers across the state are affected, but a spokeswoman for the department said about 7 percent got the lowest overall score. The state department attributed the problems to user error while one of the state’s teacher organizations blamed a system glitch.
“Every time something fails, the Department of Education blames it on the teachers. And some of their reasons are just not valid,” Bounds told Chalkbeat.
But the issue may reach beyond teachers who got an overall low score. One teacher got the second highest possible score on her evaluation, but she could not explain a low score in one section. She presented her issues with the portfolio system to the Knoxville school board Wednesday night, Bounds said.
“The state likes to deal in percentages, but I like to deal in people,” she said. “If there’s one person whose portfolio was done incorrectly, it matters.”
Sara Gast, a state department spokeswoman, said teachers who received low scores because of mistakes made when the portfolios were submitted can ask to have them reviewed again, and receive comments on their work.
McQueen has also invited several superintendents, including Bob Thomas of Knoxville, to give feedback on upcoming changes to the portfolio process.
She also provided an email from a Knox County teacher who reviewed portfolios praising the state for its process and chiding teachers who did not take full advantage of the training.
“I have personally reviewed four different teachers’ collections that they received a ‘1’ on, and within minutes was able to tell the teachers why the collection was scored that way,” said Laurie Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Cedar Bluff Elementary School.
“In each case, it was a mistake that the teacher did not catch because they did not take the time to understand what was being asked on the scoring rubric or they did not check their work before submitting the collection.”
Update, Aug. 9, 2018: This story has been updated to include comments from the Tennessee Department of Education.