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.

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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.

Legislators: One Last Thing Before You Go!

Capitol

The 110th Tennessee General Assembly is nearing the end, and for many, the end cannot come soon enough.  There are political races waiting and they are ready to hit the campaign trail as election season is about to launch in earnest. But before they exit Nashville, there is one last thing left for them to do: finish protecting our educators.  Unfortunately, these flawed test scores can, and will, impact teacher evaluations.

The Tennessee General prudently and quickly stepped in after the latest testing failure.  Let’s make clear, this was the result of concerned stakeholders to make sure students, educators and districts are held harmless for this year’s TNReady invalid results.  Our legislators deserve the recognition and the acclaim for their effort.  Senate Bill 1623 was sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham, along with Senators Bowling, Massey, and Pody.  House Bill 1981 was sponsored by Representative Eddie Smith, along with Representatives Hardaway, Daniel, and Parkinson.

Educators wanted to ensure that school districts could not base employment termination and compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by these statewide assessments.  This was accentuated in SB 1623/HB1981.  It must be noted that local districts have always had complete discretion in how they choose to factor test data into employment decisions like promotion, retention, termination, and compensation.  Local school districts have considerable flexibility to pause any policies or programs that emphasize the use of TNReady results in these types of personnel decisions.

Previous legislation, now law:  The Tennessee Teaching Evaluation Enhancement Act (T.C.A. § 49-1-302) adjusted the weighting of student growth data in an educator’s evaluation to lessen impact of TNReady on evaluation scores. TNReady factored into evaluation scores at 10 percent for the 2016-17 school year and will factor into evaluation scores at 20 percent for the 2017-18 school year and 35 percent for the 2018-19 school year and thereafter. Additionally, growth data from year one of TNReady will only be used if it benefits the educator. If it does not, the qualitative component of the evaluation composite will increase.

So, despite the incredible work of Tennessee Legislators, they needed to make sure the excluded test scores from this year does not impact teacher evaluations.  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. However, they just missed a critical component.  Even if employment decisions shouldn’t be based on them, the test results from this year still affect their scores and 3-year averages.

We first raised these concerns on passage of the SB 1623/HB1981 Conference Committee report with a few policymakers.  One teacher who contacted us really does want to be able to use her scores – her students are taking the paper and pencil science test next week, so they haven’t been affected by any of the issues this week. And they have worked really hard to be ready for the test. Others who may be affected negatively certainly would not want the test scores to be used.

To solve the issue, it would be beneficial to teachers to replicate what was done in 2016 with the Evaluation Flexibility Act – SB2508/HB1419 (PC No. 172) – which stated that student growth composites would be excluded unless they resulted in higher evaluation scores, with the qualitative portion of the evaluation score increased in its place. Section 3 describes a similar provision for teachers without access to individual growth data.

“For the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 school years, student growth evaluation composites generated by assessments administered in the 2015-2016 school year shall be excluded from the student growth measure as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) if such exclusion results in a higher evaluation score for the teacher or principal. The qualitative portion of the evaluation shall be increased to account for any necessary reduction to the student growth measure.”

All the legislature would have to do is take the previous language from Sections 1 & 3 and change 2015-2016 to 2017-2018, and 2017-2018 to 2019-2020. Section 2 doesn’t need to be changed unless the phased in percentage schedule of (d)(2)(E)(i) – (d)(2)(E)(iii) is being updated.  We don’t think that 49-1-302(d)(2)(E)(ii) needs to be adjusted or referenced, since it’s essentially just a circular reference to (d)(2)(B)(ii). Although we think this would make (d)(2)(E)(ii) obsolete, since if the test results would help they would probably just want to go ahead and use it for the full 35% as provided in (d)(2)(E)(iv).

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.  However, the issue that members of the 110th Tennessee General Assembly must address before leaving for home is making sure our teachers are not penalized by flawed test results and scores from this year on a teacher’s 3-year average.   We know legislators can take action when they focus.  The goal of the legislature is to ensure these flawed scores don’t harm our educators.  We need legislators to finish the job and end what they started.

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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.