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“We are making progress in education in Tennessee according to every data point, but we also have challenges,” acknowledged Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. Dr. McQueen has been at the forefront of public education the last four years, since she replaced the unpopular and non-communicative Kevin Huffman.

Huffman, the proverbial outsider from Washington DC, was his own worst enemy. A known Democrat, he was never embraced by the newly elected Republican majority that governed the Tennessee General Assembly. His popularity and likability never extended outside the recruits he brought into the state with him, the Governor’s Office or the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). Huffman perfected the art of rubbing people the wrong way. After Governor Bill Haslam won a second term, he must have decided it was time for one of the most divisive figures in Tennessee politics to exit the stage. Enter McQueen.

In order to reverse public education’s disdain, Haslam needed the antithesis of Mr. Huffman, and Candice McQueen clearly provided that to the Commissioner of Education position. McQueen was a senior vice president and dean of the college of education at Lipscomb University. McQueen had an intricate task ahead of her. She inherited many personnel who were ill-fitted to the state. Many lacked requisite experience in leadership, in the state, or in the field in which they were being relied on to provide expertise. She had to restore relationships with Legislators, Superintendents, School Boards, Educators and parents. She understood the nuances of working with the scores of special interest groups that populate the K-12 landscape. She became one of the best communicators in state government. She had to do this while providing management to arguably the most important agency in state government. It was truly an example of flying the plane while they attempt to build it.

However, the Achilles heal of her term in office has been standardized test administration. This failure is well-documented. Whether or not that is a fair accusation is debatable. She inherited some of the baggage. Nonetheless, Commissioner McQueen concedes the problems with standardized testing, including online implementation and delivery challenges. She apologized, on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Education, for the challenges and frustrations of the test administration. In addition, the state has taken specific steps to address the concerns as the state moves into the 2018-19 testing cycle. Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen recently engaged in a statewide listening tour to get educator input. It is yet to be determined if that effort will have any bearing on the next Governor.

Here is what is certain, the next Governor of Tennessee will either be Republican Bill Lee or Democrat Karl Dean. Both men, for better or worse, will inherit the responsibility of building on Haslam’s record in public education. The choice of Commissioner of Education will assume the overwhelming burden of ensuring that every child in Tennessee graduates from high school prepared for college or the workforce. The success or failure, of the next Commissioner of Education will largely determine the success or failure of the next Governor. It will be a difficult job to fill and it may be a job that nobody wants.

The next Governor will want to select someone who understands public education, understands the state of Tennessee, and is capable of running the most visible agency in the state. For all the local school superintendents who wake up thinking they are up to the task, they should be reminded that the lights of Nashville burn bright and they will be living in a fishbowl. The next Governor cannot afford to go outside the state to recruit a Commissioner of Education as Haslam did, after the Huffman fiasco.

The next Commissioner of Education must have a vision that aligns with the new Governor. They must understand the commitment they will be asked to make. Their evaluation will occur every single day by policymakers and stakeholders across the state, and often in the media. Their success only occurs when every person at a bureaucracy is working in the same direction, understanding and buying into the mission. The obstacles may seem insurmountable, and may keep you from reaching your objectives and not even be under your control. Items like contracts with vendors may be impediments to success, or a bureaucracy which stymies your objectives.

For a Commissioner, the risk is having a Governor who does not support your vision, which will hinder support for your management. Your resources will certainly be limited. Failure will almost certainly be associated with you personally. Financially, many school superintendents are already paid more than the Commissioner of Education, and their headaches are much smaller. Those people who have the skills to perform the task are more limited than the short list of people who think they are up to the challenge.

A disruption in January for 70,000 educators and 1,000,000 students, created by a new agenda for the state, might generate many unexpected issues and unnecessary anxiety during a transition. It is something that a candidate running for office cannot readily discuss, but something that a candidate elected to office must rapidly address. It must be someone who understands our unique language in public education, our stakeholders and policymakers in K-12, and the challenges facing our state.

The question asked by many educators, would either Bill Lee or Karl Dean consider retaining Commissioner McQueen? That has to be a consideration, if she would stay. What happens when you have a job that nobody wants and few are qualified for? We are about to find out.

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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.

Christy Ballard is the long time General Counsel of Tennessee Department of Education.   Nobody in the state knows Education Law better than Christy Ballard.  And  she shares her vast knowledge.   She regularly assists in the implementation and enforcement of Tennessee’s education laws and regulations by providing legal technical assistance to local school board attorneys, other state agency staff, legislators, LEA officials, teachers and the general public by providing the TDOE’s position on school related laws and regulations.

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Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen soundly responded to Metro Nashville Schools Director Shawn Joseph and Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson very bluntly in a straightforward letter yesterday.  It is doubtful that either Joseph or Hopkins actually wrote the letter, which called for a “pause” in testing and convene a statewide working group of educators to look at testing.  McQueen stated that neither she or Governor Bill Haslam received the letter that got widespread media coverage.  She also pointed out that “both state and federal law require an annual statewide assessment.”

Some may argue that states have more flexibility, which is true to an extent.  We should take a hard look at Tennessee’s ESSA plan and certainly make necessary adjustments.  But we identified our own measures of progress and agreed to take certain actions in order to receive federal monies.  Like that or not, it is how the game is played.  When Tennessee was touting Race to the Top money, the state certainly jumped through even more hoops to get those dollars.

Dr.  McQueen, who serves at the pleasure of the Governor, must follow state and federal laws.    Joseph and Hopson have their own Boards of Education they must listen to on policy issues.  Policy analysts TC Weber and Andy Spears have both weighed in on the subject, as has Sharon Roberts.  Professional Educators of Tennessee added our opinion on the subject.  All stakeholders want to get testing right.  However, the emphasis on testing misses 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.

Once the Tennessee Department of Education gets testing corrected, then we, as a state, can refocus on discussing what should or shouldn’t be included in teacher evaluations.  It is clear:  flawed testing equals faulty evaluations.  This is no way to measure the success or failure of our students, teachers or schools.  This issue isn’t going away.  Stay tuned.

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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.

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At Professional Educators of Tennessee we view assessment of students much like a school picture.  It may not be an accurate depiction, but it is what the student looks like on that day.  Our position has always been that the fewer tests administered to students would equal less disruptions for students and teachers. We have worked with the Tennessee Department of Education toward this objective.  We feel like progress has been made and will continue to work with them and the next governor toward this sensible objective.

The 2018 TNReady student assessment results showed mixed results, but state leaders saw encouraging areas of progress, and we celebrate that success.  The majority of the 650,000 students who took the assessment this year did so on paper, but about 300,000 students took the test online.  Students improved most in early grades reading, and narrowed achievement gaps.  In addition, the results show a need for deeper, more sustained work to support improvement.  The release of the results of the latest statewide assessment, while flawed, do provide a data point for educators to consider.  We encourage them to look at the results, take the result seriously and consider the steps they need to take to help all students and schools succeed.

In general, we must always be careful in determining teacher performance based strictly on the test scores of students to whom the teacher is assigned during a school year. The risk of misidentifying and mislabeling teacher performance based on test scores is too high for it to be the major indicator of teacher performance, especially when you look at issues such as student demographic characteristics. A number of states, including Michigan, have since taken steps to lessen the impact test scores have on teacher evaluations, repeatedly mentioning factors outside an educator’s control which can influence a student’s academic performance.  The interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success.

Moving forward, it is worth noting that Dr. Bill Sanders, the creator of value added assessment, warned of the misuse of TVAAS for individual teacher data because of its volatility.  We would certainly remind policymakers of this detail. In fact, classroom observations by trained personnel, along with teacher and principal input, would likely produce far more consistent and reliable data for assessing the quality of teaching than scores on an annual assessment. Assessment outcomes cannot be viewed as a reliable or significant indicator of Tennessee student proficiency until we have consecutive years of stable test delivery in which students and educators are confident.

We look forward to continuing the dialogue with policymakers and working with all stakeholders toward creating a better framework for both educator evaluation and student assessment in Tennessee.  We have proven as a state that we are willing to be innovative and now we have the opportunity to get it right. We are committed to working with stakeholders to improve implementation of state assessment so that parents, educators, and policymakers can continue to know how our students are faring each year.  As we build on our success, and we need to move forward together.

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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. 

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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.

 

“If you don’t understand — from the school district to the superintendents — that we want our teachers held harmless, then I’m sorry, you’re tone-deaf,” said State Representative Eddie Smith.

That message was heard and understood statewide. The state issued two very important guidance documents that make clear that message, which was released by the Tennessee Department of Education. Professional Educators of Tennessee, along with many others were privileged to work with the Department of Education and add our input. In addition, we will be putting together a webinar on this matter.

The guidance that the Department developed was a result of thoughtful and collaborative efforts to ensure that our state follows all state and federal laws. The new legislation that states that no adverse actions for students, teachers or schools will result from the 2017-18 TNReady administration. These two key documents, which were shared with districts and schools today, are posted on the state website, along with a list of initial improvements the state is making to the state assessment program:

  • Detailed Evaluation Guidance (here)
  • FAQ that provides an overview of the various areas the new laws impact, including student, education, school, and district accountability (here)

Some highlights from these documents:

  • We will still follow the Tennessee Teaching Evaluation Enhancement Act of 2015, which adjusted the growth component of teacher evaluation for a multi-year period, and we will provide educators with the best possible option for calculating their level of overall effectiveness (LOE). In addition, educators who have 2017-18 TNReady data included in their composite will have the ability to nullify their entire LOE score this year IF they choose.
  • Regarding school accountability, rather than issuing A-F grades, we will provide information on school performance based on the various indicators in our ESSA plan, but we will not publish an overall summative label. No adverse action will be taken against a school based on 2017-18 TNReady data. We will still name Reward and Priority schools, but no school will be identified as a Priority school using 2017-18 TNReady data.
  • Districts can decide whether TNReady data factors into students’ scores. If a district chooses to do so, then that cannot result in a lower final grade for a student. This means that districts may include scores for some students and exclude scores for others, or a student may have TNReady scores included for some specific subject areas and not others.

We believe everyone at the Tennessee Department of Education by issuing this guidance, are seeking to follow the letter of the law. Look for an announcement of the webinar coming soon at www.proedtn.org within the next few days.

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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.