pushing back

McQueen calls superintendents’ request to pause state testing ‘illegal and inconsistent with our values’

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

Tennessee’s education chief is pushing back after leaders of the state’s two largest school districts asked for an indefinite break from standardized testing.

“Pausing a state assessment would be both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in an Aug. 13 letter emailed to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

“It would turn our back on the students we most need to ensure receive a world-class education.”

Hopson said that Joseph sent their letter on Aug. 3 both electronically and through the mail to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test, TNReady.

However, McQueen wrote that the state has still not received that letter. “Let me begin by sharing my disappointment that the letter you addressed to Governor Haslam and me has been shared widely in the media but has yet to actually be shared with the Governor or me,” she said in the letter.

McQueen emphasized that an annual statewide assessment is required by state and federal law and that without it, the state would have a harder time monitoring the progress of vulnerable students.

“Historically, it has been the students from racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English learners who have been most ignored and underserved by our schools when we have not had a statewide assessment that accurately measures student performance, or when we have not used the same measuring stick for all kids,” she wrote.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that McQueen’s letter was the first he had heard from the commissioner since their letter was sent. Joseph was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

The Aug. 3 letter from the two superintendents triggered a chain of responses. A group of civil rights leaders penned a letter last week urging the state to press on with standardized testing, while the school board of Knox County Schools voted to draft a letter expressing no confidence in the state Department of Education.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

“It is important to note that Tennessee educators have been engaged extensively in the development of TNReady,” McQueen wrote in her Aug. 13 letter. “Tennessee teachers help to write questions, design the test, edit questions and forms, and review and finalize our state assessment.”

McQueen also addressed part of the superintendents’ letter that said districts spent “tens of millions of dollars” investing in new technology to prepare for online testing that didn’t work. Both Hopson and Joseph’s districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding.

McQueen said the state’s expectation was that technology would not be purchased “simply to take a test” and that there was no need for special technology to take TNReady.

“To suggest that an investment in technology is limited to online testing shows a misunderstanding of the increasing role of technology in education and undervalues the great work many of your teachers have done to enhance their teaching through technology,” she wrote.

Read McQueen’s letter to the superintendents in full below:

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.