Trimming TNReady

Tennessee to shorten TNReady amid widespread complaints about overtesting

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam (center) meet in 2015 with members of the governor’s Teachers Cabinet, who have shared their concerns about overtesting in the classroom.

After weeks of hard conversations prompted by the rocky debut of Tennessee’s new assessment, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Monday that the state will reduce the number of hours that students spend taking TNReady in its second year.

Beginning in 2016-17, the State Department of Education plans to scrap TNReady Part I in math and streamline the English portion of Part I, she said. Department officials will determine how many hours of testing the changes will save students in the coming weeks.

On average, third-graders this year will have spent 11.2 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science; seventh-graders, 11.7 hours; and high school students, 12.3 hours. Educators, parents and students alike have said that that’s simply too many hours devoted to testing, especially considering the hours that students spend taking practice tests and screeners through the state’s 2-year-old Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI-squared) program.

“We’ve always maintained we had two goals: strengthen content and reduce testing time,” McQueen told reporters during a conference call.

The changes were announced before even the completion of the first year of TNReady testing and amid widespread criticism of the rollout of the state’s new standardized test, which was marred by technical problems and delays, as well as growing concerns about overtesting in Tennessee.

In addition to revising next year’s test to reduce testing time, McQueen said the department is working to ensure smoother administration of TNReady Part II this spring. The state is pre-printing tests to include students’ names and other identifying information. She said tests will be shipped to schools before the testing window begins on April 25.

The time spent testing in Tennessee classrooms has been at the center of the state’s nascent opt-out movement, as well as calls from districts to ditch TNReady altogether in favor of the ACT suite of tests, which take less time overall.

“Kids don’t see the value when you take so many tests,” said Clint Wilson, principal of Nashville’s Glencliff High School, days before McQueen’s announcement. “It’s less time with instruction (and) it’s a lot less time with administrators making sure quality instruction is occurring.”

"Kids don’t see the value when you take so many tests."Clint Wilson, principal

Tullahoma City Schools Superintendent Dan Lawson said the amount of testing this year has seemed significantly more than in any other year in his two-decade-long career in Tennessee schools.

“Outside of RTI-squared and TNReady, we don’t have time to do anything,” Lawson said. “We’re trying to have class on occasion.”

Concerns about over-testing predated TNReady’s rollout but intensified during the last few months of testing, when a network outage prompted McQueen to ditch the state’s new online assessment and revert to paper-based tests. Last year, McQueen convened a testing task force, which recommended eliminating a handful of state-mandated tests — a move that the Department of Education supports. She plans convene a second assessment task force in the coming months to assess other ways to improve testing.

McQueen said more hard decisions over the fate of TNReady lie ahead, such as whether the state should try once again to transition to an online version of the test next year, and whether the state should stick with Measurement Inc., the vendor that many blame for the troubled rollout.

When those decisions are made, she wants educators to be at the table.

"We’ve had difficult conversations that we needed to have."Candice McQueen, commissioner

“We’ve had difficult conversations that we needed to have,” she said. “We will keep working together and we will keep getting better.”

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.