The Trouble with Testing

Testing has taken a wrong turn in public education. I have always tried to keep it simple: testing is like your school picture; it is what you look like on that particular day. Kids go in to take a test. Teachers show up to make sure kids are taking their own test. Parents encourage their children to do their best. However, like Ozzie & Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, and the Lone Ranger, those days are gone.

With an infusion of $501 million federal dollars of Race to the Top money we hurried to increase standards by adopting Common Core, which we corrected by moving back to state standards. We also increased testing, changing both format and frequency. Tennessee also adopted new evaluation methods. The teacher 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. Professional Educators of Tennessee did not support the use of that data on teacher evaluations, nor did they sign a support letter on the original grant submission.

Not everything Tennessee tried was damaging, but it is not debatable that thus far the Age of Accountability has failed students, teachers, parents and taxpayers. Since 2012 Tennessee has had one misstep after another in testing. In 2013, our tests were not aligned to our standards. In 2014, the issue was transparency, notably quick scores and test score waivers for final semester grades were the major issue. In 2015, the new TNReady online tests had issues in the post equating formula. In 2016, we fired the vender Measurement, Inc because after the online platform was botched and they were unable to get out a paper version of the test. In 2017, we were again plagued by issues due to scoring discrepancies. This year 2018, we have already had issues related to testing, including the belief by the testing vendor Questar that the Questar data center is under attack from an external source, although it is not believed at this time that any student data was compromised.

At no point since 2012 were any of the testing issues the fault of students or educators. However, for educators they are often the ones who bear the brunt, quite unfairly, of parental anger. Students also suffer, with everything from loss of instruction time to not understanding their educational progress. When we make education decisions on the basis of unreliable or invalid test results, we place students at risk and harm educators professionally. This is especially unfair to the hardworking teachers in our state. To policymakers and stakeholders alike we must ask these questions:

  • Why are we relying so heavily on test scores to make important educational decisions about students, teachers or schools, especially when the process is flawed?
  • If the Questar data center was under attack from an external source, there should be no greater priority by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to identify and prosecute those individuals guilty of this activity and confirm that no student data was compromised.
  • Should we question the reliability, validity, and accuracy of testing in Tennessee since 2013? Especially when shifting between online to paper tests? Note: Reliability relates to the accuracy of their data. Reliability problems in education often arise when researchers overstate the importance of data drawn from too small or too restricted a sample. Validity refers to the essential truthfulness of a piece of data. By asserting validity, does the data actually measure or reflect what is claimed?

In Tennessee we appreciate straight talk and candor. We unquestionably detest hypocrisy. We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies and even by our government. We are not pointing fingers; just stating a fact. Clearly there is a problem with testing in Tennessee. It isn’t our students or our educators. It is a flawed testing system.

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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.