a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jennifer Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”

Chalkbeat explains

Four reasons Tennessee likely won’t go back to paper testing

As another wave of online testing problems plagues Tennessee schools, one of the solutions proposed by state legislators — go back to paper exams — is a stretch for a state that has invested millions into electronic exams.

In short, reverting to pencil-and-paper would be akin to ordering iPhone users to go back to flip phones. It almost certainly won’t happen.

Two Memphis-area state lawmakers want to ban the online version of TNReady starting next school year until the state comptroller determines its problems are “fully and completely fixed.” Another lawmaker says local districts should be able to choose between paper and electronic testing.

Their motivation springs from this week’s technical problems with TNReady, just two years after a statewide online collapse prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most state testing that year.

Despite the frustrations, here are four reasons why it’s unlikely Tennessee will go back to paper testing:

Superintendents think they’ve gone too far to turn back now. Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead cautioned against rash decisions in the heat of the moment.

“When things like this happen, it’s easy to overreact,” he told Chalkbeat. “But we’ve come too far. We know that online testing is the future. If we turn back, it will take a long time to get back to where we were.”

School systems and counties have poured millions into infrastructure and devices, added Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

“We don’t want to back up. We want to get it right, though,” he said.

Paper is more time consuming. With online testing, “we can get test materials [and scores] back or to folks much quicker,” McQueen said this week.

Preparing paper tests requires hours of sorting and labeling exams. And if the materials arrive late, like they did for several districts this month because of severe weather at testing company Questar’s printing center in the Northeast, the time crunch is especially stressful.

Granted, a top-notch online system that protects against cheating and hacking could be more expensive than a paper version, said Wayne Camara, an ACT research chair who oversees test security.

“The issue of cost is relative.” he said. Multiple versions of computer tests are necessary to help safeguard against cheating, especially via social media.

“If you’re having to produce 10 or 15 forms of a computer test, most likely it’s not cheaper.”

If Tennessee switches back to paper testing, it will be one of few states nationwide. A recent analysis by John Hopkins School of Education lists 11 states that were still using paper tests in 2016 for elementary students. For middle schools, it was nine states.

Nearly across the board, those states with no experience with online testing did worse in national online testing.


Read more about Tennessee’s most recent performance on the Nation’s Report Card.


There’s security issues with paper, too. The alleged cyber attack on Questar’s data center Tuesday sparked a statewide outcry, but switching back to paper won’t eliminate security issues.

“Both digital- and paper-based testing are certainly susceptible to cheating,” said Camara, the testing cybersecurity expert. “I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a significant reduction of security measures or cheating with computers. It’s just different.”

One of the largest state test cheating scandals happened in Atlanta with paper tests when principals and teachers changed student answers. That’s much harder to do online.

Jacinthia Jones and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.