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The Tennessee Department of Education announced at a noon press conference on Thursday some necessary changes to the state TNReady test that teachers, administrators and superintendents have been asking the state to make. Among the changes include rebidding the testing contract, refining the current Questar contract, revising timeline for online testing, and engaging more teachers. These steps complement additional actions already in the works, including eliminating two TNReady end-of-course exams, eliminating the March stand-alone field test for the next two years, simplifying and streamlining test administration, bringing in a third party to perform an independent review of Questar’s technological capabilities, improving customer service, and engaging dozens of additional Tennessee teachers, content experts, and testing coordinators to look at every part of our state testing program.

Dale Lynch from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and JC Bowman from Professional Educators of Tennessee were in attendance at the announcement. Both praised the Tennessee Department of Education for taking proactive steps to address the issue. Bowman added: “Leadership collects input from those on the ground, makes the process better for all, and then tweaks the product as needed. We firmly believe that changes needed to be made, and we are pleased that Commissioner McQueen and her team heard our message and made the necessary changes to improve student assessment in Tennessee.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said at the press conference: “improvements are being made after ongoing conversations with teachers, parents, education leaders, and policymakers over the past several weeks and are aimed at addressing a number of areas of concern.” She added: “Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” Commissioner McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

The multi-faceted changes announced today will immediately improve the state assessment—TNReady—and establish a longer-term framework for success. The steps being taken to improve TNReady include:

  • Releasing a new Request for Proposals (RFP) to identify the assessment vendor or vendors that can successfully administer the state test in 2019-20 and beyond.  The RFP process will better ensure that students can take TNReady seamlessly and without disruption.
  • Amending the state’s current contract and relationship with Questar to improve the assessment experience in 2018-19
  • Adjusting the pace of the state’s transition to online testing

In May, a national study recognized Tennessee as the No. 1 state in the country for improvement in the quality of its academic standards, going from an “F” rating in 2007 to an “A” in 2017. TNReady is designed to measure those standards, and it has a variety of different types of questions to look for the depth of students’ knowledge.

Tennessee is one of less than 10 states that still has a paper test in middle school—and both state and district leaders recognize that the workforce of the 21st century is increasingly online. We also want every student to have a positive testing experience, and we want to maximize the ability to have a seamless online administration. Accordingly, the state is adjusting the timeline to continue the transition to online but at a modified pace. For 2018-19:

  • Students in grades 3-8 will take TNReady on paper for math, English, and social studies.
  • Students in grades 3-4 will take their TNReady science test on paper, and students in grades 5-8 will take their science test online. Science is a field test in 2018-19 because the state is transitioning to new academic standards; therefore, the results will not count for students, teachers, or schools, nor will any public scores be released. This provides an option for all students to experience the online platform and do so in an environment that is low-risk for them.
  • Students in high school and those taking end-of-course exams will continue to test online.

Further, the department will improve paper administration, as well. In addition to having Tennessee teachers review all test questions, scripts, and test forms, the department is streamlining test logistics to have fewer versions of the test distributed across the state. This makes it much easier on testing coordinators and proctors to administer. The state has also combined the answer document and test questions into one test booklet in lower grades so it is easier for students to take the test.

For more information on the additional TNReady improvements  you can visit the Tennessee Department of Education website.

 

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.