We Can’t Hide from the Tough Issues

Heftiger Disput

Problems are seemingly growing more and more complex, or are they?  In yesterday’s commentary,  Legislators – One Last Thing Before You Go!, we wanted to make sure our teachers are not going to be penalized by flawed test results and scores from this year on a teacher’s 3-year average.  It seems like it should be a simple fix, but actually is a little more complex.  That is what legislators must regularly balance in decision-making in the Tennessee General Assembly.  In public policy it isn’t always a struggle between right and wrong.  There is rarely a perfect solution.

We are very pleased that the Tennessee General Assembly wanted to hold students, educators and school districts harmless.  It really is a hold harmless, provided school districts in fact do not use test data into employment decisions like promotion, retention, termination, compensation—or even an improvement plan. It seems clear that the intent of the legislature was to ensure that the scores couldn’t harm teachers or students in any way, so we think this is an important part emphasized in SB 1623/HB1981.  However, we argued that they just missed a critical component, which is true.  Test results from this year still affect their scores and 3-year averages.

Here is the dilemma:  if we do not use this year’s TVAAS for teachers it would also likely hurt some teachers from gaining tenure.   And that too, is unacceptable and unfair.   So accordingly, this year’s data only counts as 10%, last year at 10% and the previous year at 15% to make up the 35% of the evaluation.   Teachers can use last year or this year as the full 35% if it helps the teacher.   They must have that data as part of their evaluation or the results can’t be used.  So, to be clear, a school district cannot use that flawed data, but a teacher can.  School districts cannot base employment termination and compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by these statewide assessments.  So, do legislators change the law they just passed, try to modify, or leave it be for now?  That is the discussion that they must have this week.

Legislators would be negligent if they do not further discuss the issue. They may choose to just take the fleas with the dog.  They have done excellent work on this issue to protect teachers, and they deserve the credit.  In the end the lesser of disappointing options is to leave in place what was passed.  We understand that choice.  In a perfect world we would have had perfect execution of the TNReady Test by our vendor Questar.  Then we would not be talking about flawed data, impact on 3-year averages or tenure. However, three things are almost certain on the campaign trail in 2018, especially in state races:

  • The continued feasibility of using a complicated statistical method as an evaluation tool for teachers will certainly be further debated by stakeholders and policymakers in the foreseeable future. Do we continue using The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS)? Move to another more reliable statistical method?  Or do we abandon these complicated formulas altogether?
  • States are allowed to use federal funds, but no longer required, to continue teacher evaluations linked to test scores. Only a handful of states took advantage of the testing flexibility Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows.  In fact, the US Secretary of Education is explicitly prohibited from mandating any aspect of a teacher evaluation system.  So, will our state continue linkage of test scores to evaluation moving forward? Or will we end the practice?
  • Do we continue moving toward an online test, or do we yet again revert strictly to paper and pencil or some combination of the two?

Sometimes issues are complex, and the simple solution is not possible.  Simon Sinek, wrote: “There is no decision that we can make that doesn’t come with some sort of balance or sacrifice.”  This may be a case where the right solution is based on flawed data may be a right solution.  Then again, we may be all be wrong.  Let the debate continue.


Audrey Shores is the Chief Operating Officer of Professional Educators of Tennessee.   JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.