Panels, Tours and Testing

The-House-Always-Wins

I have grown fatigued with blue ribbon panels or listening tours.  I have never found either strategy very useful in formulating public policy.  Especially when that policy is agenda-driven, with pre-determined outcomes.  I am also not a gambler (sorry Kenny Rogers).  I understand that the house always comes out the winner in the end. A casino has a business model premeditated to ensure its success.  Much like a blue-ribbon panel, or a listening tour.

From a political standpoint, why would the state of Tennessee try to conduct a listening tour at this time?  We are in the middle of election season and the Governor is in his final days.  What more can he add to the education debate after 8 years, that he hasn’t already tried?  All stakeholders want to get testing right. We have already had an Assessment Task Force, which has done a pretty good job of collecting input and holding serious discussions.  The state has already been engaged in an open conversation about assessment and ways to improve administration of tests.  We have already gathered feedback on the delivery of state assessments.  We simply have not executed the plan.  There are just a few vendors across the nation who have the resources and ability to be selected as the state’s next assessment partner.  We have been through several of those vendors already—and were disappointed by those results.

If the state wants to discuss how to better provide schools, educators, parents and students with meaningful and timely results from assessments, then we better figure out how to get the results back to those in the classrooms capable of making better academic decisions for students. We will want to provide baseline assessments of learning/study skills, identify areas of potential academic concerns, highlight learning strengths/weaknesses, and provide effective and efficient strategies in getting academic intervention when needed by students.  This is something unlikely to occur on a listening tour and is already known by the K-12 Community.

We can and should discuss the value that assessments can provide.  We must also discuss how the emphasis on testing is missing the bigger issue:  student academic growth measured by flawed testing.  Then the results being used in educator evaluations.  This is certainly more problematic to educators than the actual tests themselves.   It should be problematic to parents as well.  When two superintendents raised the testing issue and requested a pause in testing, Commissioner McQueen correctly pointed out that as a condition of receiving federal funds, the feds through Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires state education agencies to implement statewide assessments.  Many states exceed federal requirements.

McQueen pointed out that “both state and federal law require an annual statewide assessment.” So, if we want a discussion on testing perhaps we should be directing at the Federal Branch as well?  Should we not also look at our ESSA Plan while doing this pointless tour?  The initial ESSA plan was based on feedback from thousands of Tennesseans over the course of a year.

How did we get here?  With an infusion of $501 million federal dollars of Race to the Top money our state hurried to increase standards by adopting Common Core, which was soon corrected by moving back to state standards. We then increased testing, changing both format and frequency. Tennessee also adopted new evaluation methods. The teachers’ union supported the incorporation of TVAAS data into the state’s teacher evaluations, which landed Tennessee $501 million from the federal Race to the Top grant in 2010.

Former Governor, Phil Bredesen, said that former Senator Bill Frist had contributed a lot to the state’s proposal, but that his own role in persuading the Tennessee Education Association, a teachers’ union, to sign on had been important, too.  

So, how do we get out of this mess?  It probably won’t be the result of a listening tour.  And our next Governor had better put forth policy ideas pretty quickly, or he will be saddled with an unworkable plan right out of the gate—just like Governor Bredesen and Governor Haslam.  The people who got us into this mess, probably aren’t the people to get us out of it.

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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.