Concerned about over-testing, Tennessee will eliminate two high school exams

Tennessee will drop two end-of-course exams for high schoolers next school year in its most significant reduction of state testing in recent years.

The state’s testing task force voted Monday to eliminate standardized tests for chemistry and English III — essentially cutting by more than half the amount of state-ordered testing for students in their junior year of high school.

The Department of Education also will collaborate with the Tennessee Board of Regents to make the end-of-course exam in U.S. history a dual credit test to help students earn college credit from their TNReady score.

In addition, the state announced plans to reduce time on the TNReady English language arts exam in grades 3 and 4 to make it a combined 78 minutes shorter.

Most of the changes announced Monday are aimed at cutting testing during the 11th grade, which is considered students’ heaviest testing year because of additional exams for the ACT, Advanced Placement courses, and dual credit exams, in addition to current state assessments in U.S. history, English III, chemistry, and sometimes other subjects too. Educators agree that, by their junior year of high school, most students are more focused on doing well on their college entrance exam than in prepping for state-mandated assessments that have been part of their testing regimen since the third grade.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said these two exams are the logical ones to cut because it would make a big dent in 11th-grade testing.

“There are very few states that actually do give an English III EOC or have an chemistry exam, so we were very rare,” she told the task force.

The group was generally in agreement about eliminating the test for chemistry, but wrestled with cutting the English III assessment, especially when many students are struggling with reading and writing.

“I’m worried about the message eliminating it sends,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said eliminating any test “is the wrong direction” in a state that has worked diligently to build an accountability system aimed at increasing student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

“All these are building blocks,” Gresham said.

But others said the state needs to be responsive to concerns about over-testing in a tangible way, especially for 11th-graders.

“I don’t equate quality instruction with an EOC test,” said Kevin Cline, assistant principal of Jefferson County High School. “The problem is not the test. The problem is those kids are spending the last of every two to three weeks testing. That cuts into their instruction time.”

“If you eliminate an exam, teachers will continue to teach,” added Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “Eliminating an exam will not stop teachers from teaching.”

The Tennessee Department of Education is already in the process of working with state higher education officials to develop an optional English III exam that could go toward college credits. That test should be ready in the 2019-20 school year, and McQueen said she would entertain making the state’s current English III exam optional next year for school districts that would like a transition.

The chart below shows what percentage of Tennessee students are currently taking end-of-course tests in each subject in grades 8-12.

McQueen has convened her task force for three years running, primarily to examine the state’s testing regimen in response to concerns about over-testing raised by parents and teachers.

Recommendations in the first year resulted in the elimination of a test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as the shortening of TNReady tests for math and reading.

In the second year, the task force contributed to Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law and slimmed down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders.