Well, That’s Clear As Mud

Clear-as-MudLast week, I wrote about what has become an annual event in Tennessee: the botching of the release of TCAP results. Last year, they came out late, which prevented many schools from being able to include them, as is required by state law, in students’ report cards. This year, they released the quick scores on time but failed to mention that the method of calculation had changed. Last year, we learned the term post equating. This year, we are learning about cube root formulas. Unfortunately, both are adding up to more questions than answers.

I want to clarify something right from the beginning here. I am not a statistician nor do I play one on TV. I am just a parent, who, while my children are currently not subject to these tests, is looking for an equitable and accurate way to gauge our students’, teachers’, and schools’ performance. Personally, I believe that it shouldn’t be a system that fails to report timely results on a regular basis, nor one that needs outside counsel to interpret how scores are determined, but that’s just me. Apparently, though, this is a view quite a few parents and teachers share as well because Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen felt enough pressure that she issued some communication on the confusion caused by the release of “quick scores.”

In a posting on Classroom Chronicles, a TNDOE blog, disseminated through social media, McQueen mainly spends time thanking teachers for all their hard work and efforts. She also addresses the change in the method of calculating quick scores. She chalks it up to it being a decision made by the previous regime and then not communicated effectively after the decision was made. Fair enough. But… there is this line: “I became aware of the issue after quick scores were released and have been working to communicate about the issue since that time.”

Wouldn’t it stand to reason that there would have been some inter-department communication in regards to the scores before they were released? Would there not have been some kind of evaluation and a general discussion about the level of scores and how they reflected on ongoing processes? Would this not have lead to someone making sure Ms. McQueen completely understood the methodology of the scores and what their results meant? I guess my real question is this: Wouldn’t somebody have raised the same questions that teachers across the state are asking? And I’m not talking one or two teachers – I’m talking the vast majority. Apparently not and that’s a little disconcerting.

In her post, Ms. McQueen links to another TNDOE blog, Educator Update. Here’s where things get real interesting. Under “Quick Score Clarification” is this passage:

Quick Scores Not Tied to Proficiency

It’s important to note that while quick scores are the first indicator parents and students receive about TCAP results, quick scores are not tied to TCAP performance levels (i.e., a quick score of 85 is not equivalent to the cut score for proficient). Quick scores are not the percent correct or a percentile rank. Quick scores are only used for one purpose; they are created to be factored into a student’s grade, as required by law. Quick scores are designed on a 100-point scale to match district-grading systems. Please see the TCAP Scoring Flow chart, and you’ll notice that quick scores inform no other part of the scoring process. Quick scores are not intended to be a parent or teacher’s primary window into student performance.

So walk me through this. Quick Scores are not intended to be a true representation of a student’s performance. However, they are factored into a student’s report card, which I assume is supposed to be an accurate representation. That absolutely baffles me. In my non-education related life, if you add something inaccurate into a report, then it tends to make the whole report inaccurate, but it seems that doesn’t hold true here. Then there is this passage:

Based on feedback from superintendents, principals, and teachers, the department has provided additional information for districts regarding quick score methodology options. Because there is no standard grading scale for grades 3-8, districts can utilize the information we provide to make decisions about which methodology option is best for them. Most districts are using the current methodology, including the cube root calculation method for grades 3-8, due to timing of these options and grade releases. Some districts are using the same quick score methodology as we did for grades 3-8 last year. All districts have received the raw student scores. Data for all calculations have been made available to each district for their use.

So if I’m reading this right, all districts are not even using the same methodology in applying these scores to kids’ grades. How is that not completely distorting the picture? But we are not done yet.

Regardless of the method used to calculate quick scores, the bar for student proficiency has not changed. However, we are providing more information than in previous years to ensure local leadership and educators have the information they need to best understand and use their scores. It’s important to remember that quick scores have no impact on district, school, or teacher accountability and changing the methodology to calculate quick scores will in no way impact the number of your students that are proficient on TCAP. Quick scores are developed for the sole purpose of inserting a grade on a report card, as required by state law.

Again, my interpretation of this passage is this: Hey, those scores don’t mean a thing. They are just giving you a number to plug into the grades so they can comply with the law. Later in the summer, when that pesky law requirement thing is out of the way, we’ll let you know what it all really means. Until then, stay calm and input those grades. Is that not a problem? The piece closes thusly:

In summary, we apologize for the communication failure on the quick score methodology shift that occurred in the fall. We will be creating protocols and processes that avoid this in the future. We want to continue to celebrate our progress as a state and our educators’ role in this success. You have made progress every year on the state tests since 2010. You are raising expectations and getting results. We look forward to working with you as we serve our students.

In other words, the state is saying these meaningless scores show what a great job you are doing. Well, at least until the summer, when they give you a true evaluation. Maybe I’m the only one who finds this whole process alarming, but based on the teacher responses I’ve heard, I don’t think so.

I haven’t even touched on questions of why the methodology for K-8 was changed. Since we aren’t going to a new test until next year, why did the TNDOE make the decision to make the change? Is it going to change again next year? Nobody feels the necessity to explain why the change was made, just that it was made and then poorly communicated.

With so much riding on these test scores – student grades, teacher evaluations, the way we determine whether or not a school is “failing” and might need to be closed – we desperately need to examine why so much emphasis is placed on what is clearly a confusing and meaningless system. Imagine if you are a student who has heeded the mandate to “rock ” the test only to find out that your score doesn’t mean what you thought it did. What a shame for our students and teachers. Our obsession with test scores has got to stop.

That’s the one thing that this whole fiasco reiterates, we need a new process with new timelines and new guidelines. If we are just generating numbers to meet a mandate, and the numbers aren’t accurate or easily interpreted, perhaps the law needs to be changed. In one Facebook posting I read, an explanation of cube rooting was given, but it took several paragraphs and plenty of reflection to get even a minimal amount of understanding. Does the process really have to be this complex?

Regardless, we need a system that all stakeholders can easily understand. One that we don’t have to depend on people with doctorates in math and statistics to explain. One that the explanation of why we apply it can be easily communicated to everyone. One that doesn’t leave parents so baffled that they afraid to question it. I have a saying that if the apology takes as long as the offense, then you’ve committed a second offense. It’s safe to say that rule easily applies here.

In response to this years debacle, a dozen parent and educator groups across the state have banded together to demand action by creating a petition calling upon the state to address our testing issues. Improving the process is essential and I urge everyone to sign the petition. Candice McQueen just finished a listening tour of the state’s school districts and has shown a willingness to listen. It’s important that she receive a little extra feedback. Transparency and trust in the system is imperative, and right now, we have neither.

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5 replies

  1. Amen, and thank you for writing this. I looked at the cube root formula and still don’t understand how cut scores were derived. Why does it have to be so complicated? Scores should be computed as a simple percentage. At the very least, we need to see the questions and answers on these tests. I had students who were so happy to pass. What a letdown it will be to them and their parents if they actually failed.

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