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TN(not)Ready-What’s Really Changed?

nclbLast week amid great fanfare, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced that due to a crash of the online testing platform, he planned to allow teachers to not have TNReady scores be a part of their evaluations this year. Accolades poured in from the galleys and everybody slapped everybody on the back. Testing this year would now not affect students or teachers. Hallelujah! But what’s really changed? I’d argue nothing.

Last night, my wife, a fourth grade teacher, and I were having one of those stress-filled conversations that seem to populate the homes of teachers this time of year, and I made the comment that at least scores won’t count against teachers this year. She looked at me incredulously and responded, “Says who?”

I said, “Well, the governor.”

“Where does it say that?”

“Well, he’s proposing…”

“Exactly!” She exclaimed. “He’s proposing. Who knows if it will actually happen! What I do know is that starting next week, I’ve got students who are about to spend hours on testing. I also know that teachers are spending extensive extra hours getting these students ready to test. There is all kinds of conflicting information out there, and we don’t have time to sift through it because we are focused on getting kids ready to test next week in an ever-shifting environment.” (To be fair to her, I may be paraphrasing a bit. I don’t usually keep a recorder close by when we are talking. It would affect the candor.)

As often happens when I have these conversations with my wife, a light bulb went off for me. There is, as always, a tremendous disconnect between what happens in policy rooms and what transpires in classrooms. In fairness, Governor Haslam probably made his announcement and then moved on. Unfortunately, teachers and students don’t have that luxury. Until policy is communicated down to their immediate supervisors, they have to conduct themselves as if everything is still the same and those tests are all going to be used for accountability purposes.

The TNReady fiasco is a prime example of why I hate education policies based on accountability. TNReady fails and the immediate rush is not to address the impact of those it is supposed to serve, but rather to quickly decide whether blame should fall to State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, the testing purveyor Measurement Inc., or even former Commissioner Kevin Huffman. Here’s a novel idea. Why not assess the damage, its impact on students and teachers, and then focus on how to get it right going forward. We can assign blame later.

In all the press releases I’ve read, I’ve yet to see a single one addressed directly to students saying “Hey, we adults effed up, and we are sorry.” There is no acknowledgement of how hard students have worked in preparation for these exams and no acknowledgement of the stress and sacrifice students and teachers have made. Instead, it’s been a mad scramble to save face and preserve adult constructs, and we should be ashamed by that.

I told a friend recently to think of it this way: Imagine I told you back in August that come March, I’m going to take you over to the football field, and I need you to run a 100-yard dash. I need it to be in under 11 seconds, stressing the importance of you hitting that goal. You believed in me, so you took my challenge seriously. You were up every morning training for 6 months straight, even on days you didn’t feel like it because you respected me and I had told you the importance of this run.

A few days before the run comes, I show up and say, “My watch really wasn’t very good, and I haven’t had a chance to replace it, but I’ve got this old stopwatch so we’ll use it instead. And the field isn’t quite ready, so we’ll just go behind the school and do it there instead. Now, I know this isn’t what I told you in the beginning, but don’t worry, we are not going to count these times. They are just going to be something to measure next year’s group against. Oh, and when we run next week, I need you to run both in the morning and in the afternoon on the same day. Thanks.”

Think of how angry you would be. I had just completely undervalued your time and effort. I sent you a message that what I communicated to you about the importance of the test really wasn’t important for you, but it was for me. My needs come first, not yours. How much credibility would you give me when I showed up next year and asked you to do the same thing again? Would you put the same effort in? Would you still have the same level of respect for me? Well, this is exactly what happened with TNReady and our students. Teachers did their best to communicate expectations to their students, but the state kept changing all the rules. Worse, they haven’t stopped changing the rules. Hence the high stress levels in households like mine.

Here’s the other thing nobody is talking about. Science scores will count this year for teacher evaluations because it is still a TCAP test and not part of TNReady. Once again, since accountability is the primary focus of our policies and people only focus on what you’re holding them accountable for, what are we focusing on? Bingo! Science! But haven’t we focused on that all year? Ask a teacher. Any teacher will do. You’ll find that our focus on science is woefully inadequate, but not now.

Because now it and social studies will play larger roles in a teachers evaluation. Both subjects deserve more in depth coverage but are often neglected due to the demands for literacy and numeracy scores. With reading and math not counting this year, suddenly science and social studies leap to the forefront. Administrators and teachers are scrambling to prepare children, but you can only make up so much neglect. And please don’t blame the teachers here, they can only play the hand they are dealt and when it comes to Science and Social Studies it’s not always a good one.

Ravi Gupta, Co-Founder and CEO of RePublic Charter Schools, recently wrote an editorial calling for the scrapping of this year’s testing. I probably disagree with Gupta about 99% of the time, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut and he’s found one here. Especially the part about giving clear direction to teachers and administrators and giving them the summer to unit plan. My God, I think my head just exploded. Imagine if teachers were given clear directions and the opportunity to decide how they were going to communicate that to students instead of having to constantly adjust their instruction as the year progresses. Now he does think that teachers should plan based around what’s going to be on the test, but…baby steps.

It’s time for adults to demonstrate to children how to properly react when we fall short or fail, let’s face it, it happens to all of us. We preach all the time about “teachable moments”, here’s a prime opportunity to practice what we preach. When you fail at something, you stop, assess, apply corrective action, and then restart. You don’t just double down and push through with a failed process just because you can’t admit that you don’t have it right.

We’ve talked about students and teachers, but what about schools. It’s time for some more turnaround talk and we need a priority list for that. The Achievement School District is always ready to absorb more schools. Maybe the scores don’t get used for teachers and students, maybe they just get used for schools. The point is nobody knows exactly how scores will be utilized or the people who do know are not communicating the intent. Either way its all clear as mud and the errors haven’t stopped. Dickson County was supposed to start testing on Monday but have postponed testing until March 7 because they couldn’t get confirmation that printed materials would be shipped on time. Make it stop!

Are we really going to take kids and subject them to a week of testing without clear purpose? Are we really going to ask third graders to write two essays and sit for 2.5 hours in one day and not know how those results are going to be utilized? Scores may count for this or they may not count for that. This is important, no wait a minute, this is. Teachers get them ready for this, no wait, focus on this instead. We are going to start today, no tomorrow. It’s a never ending game of chase your tail. A game that leads to increased stress for children with no clear goal and robs them of valuable instruction time as well. This isn’t about doing what’s best for children, it’s about money, politics and power. It’s morally wrong.

Let’s do this right. We need to scrap the tests this year. And I don’t mean some, or part of, I’m talking all. Apologize to the students. Explain what went wrong, from a process angle, not a blame angle. Apologize for the terrible inconvenience, allow people to be angry, vow to get it right, and then get it right. It’s the way we conduct ourselves in our personal lives. It’s the way we teach our children to conduct themselves when they fall short. It’s time to practice it as adults.


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TN (not) Ready


tennAnother year, another Tennessee testing fiasco. Over the last few years, one thing that has become as certain as death and taxes is a screw up on Tennessee’s annual high stakes student testing program. In the past, it was cut scores and meeting deadlines. This year was supposed to be different. This year, we had a brand new test and everybody was assured that students would be able to take the test electronically. It was going to be a bold new day. Only it wasn’t. Mere hours after starting, the whole system crashed. As it turned out, to paraphrase many teachers who knew better, Tennessee ain’t ready after all.

Tennessee spent the last year trumpeting that it was a new dawn on the Tennessee landscape. The mean old sheriff was gone and the new sheriff was going to do things differently. She was going to listen to parents and teachers! Only she didn’t. She was going to take a hard look at the Achievement School District! Only she didn’t. She was going to make sure we got testing done right! And apparently she hasn’t done that either. Despite spending roughly $182 million, children who were expecting to be tested online will take up the old fashioned pencil and paper and pretend the method of testing is unimportant. Only it is.

Throughout this process, Assistant Commissioner of Data and Research Nakia Towns has made some interesting comments. Such as this: “There is no inherent advantage or disadvantage to a student in terms of taking a paper version of TNReady versus a computer-based version,” despite research indicating differently. As Grace Tatter, a writer for Chalkbeat Tennessee, illustrates in a recent article, the first time the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) writing test was administered online in 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics tracked the impact on student scores. “Students who had greater access to technology in and out of school, and had teachers that required its use for school assignments, used technology in more powerful ways” and “scored significantly higher on the NAEP writing achievement test,” wrote Doug Levin, then-director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, in a 2014 blog post.

I look at it this way: I tell you that I am going to test you on how fast you can run the 100 yard dash, and then instruct you to report to the track because that’s where we are going to conduct the test. However, once you get there, I tell you I’m taking you over to the football field, and instead of running on cinder and clay, which you’ve been training on for months, this test is going to be on grass. Technically, you are still running 100 yards, but is there anybody that would argue running on grass would produce the same results as running on a track? Yet the potential for glitches that could lead to the switching of formats for this high-stakes test elicits this response from Towns, “there will be no tissue damage.”

I’ve written this before, but I think it bears repeating, that in order to have an effective accountability tool, you have to have buy-in from the people you are attempting to hold accountable. I know that some would argue that standardized tests are more than an accountability tool, but let’s be honest, that is their primary function. If the purpose was truly to shape instruction, results would be available in a timely manner so that they could be utilized to shape instruction and parents and teachers would see actual results so they could work with their children. In other words, there would be more across the board transparency. But TNReady and its ilk are created for one purpose: to hold people accountable.

In the eyes of some, children have to be accountable for learning what we think they should learn. Teachers and schools have to be held accountable for being prudent with taxpayer dollars and for preparing the next set of worker bees. As a side note, the fanatical monitoring of taxpayer money has always kind of baffled me. Personally, I look at taxes as a cover charge to the coolest nightclub in town. I certainly hope they use the money towards maintaining the club, and I elect officials to do so, but if for some reason they use it in a manner that doesn’t improve the experience for me, or the charge gets too high, then I’m free to go to another club. But it’s not like I’ll ever get to stop paying the cover charge. I guess that’s why there is a saying in the bar business that your regulars are your biggest asset and your biggest liability. But I digress.

Not everyone sees things like I do. Like I said, there are some who believe that they need to get something out of their tax dollars other than simply knowing we are educating future generations. They want proof, and for them, the proof is in the test scores. It’s worth noting that actual administrators, teachers, and most parents don’t feel that way about test scores, but they clearly aren’t the ones making these decisions. Still we can not ignore the fact that currently, there is a distinct lack of confidence in the state of Tennessee’s chosen accountability tool. Parents don’t believe. Teachers don’t believe. Administrators don’t believe. School boards don’t believe. In fact, it seems that the only people who do believe is the Tennessee Department of Education. In other words, as the saying goes, Houston, we have a problem.

Last week on Twitter, a parent, teacher, and test supporter, Jason Egly, took umbrage with my criticisms of TNReady. He charged that people like me were always trying to avoid accountability by saying, “And then next year, there will be another reason to delay accountability. And the year after that. And that.” Teacher and blogger Zack Barnes charged that “you don’t want to get it right. You want to end yearly testing. That’s bad for children.”  I think they are both missing the point though. The argument, or at least the brunt of it, isn’t against measuring or accountability, it is against using a flawed tool to conduct that measurement and then allowing that tool to dominate the process. I could use a screwdriver to measure something, and let’s say it measures 4 lengths of a screwdriver. But would you build a house using those measurements, or would you tell me that we are not starting on building this house until I go get an accurate measuring tape?

I believe that there are two kinds of processes. One is, as I call it, to get things done. The other is to hold people accountable. Now plenty of people will argue that holding people accountable will get things done. To a certain extent, that is true. But you need to remember that the only things that will get done are the things you are holding people accountable for. Everything else will fall to the side. The Chinese learned that lesson the hard way. A generation focused on scoring well on tests meant a generation ill equipped for critical thought. They altered their focus and we need to as well. We should measure the learning, not learn to the measurement.

We need to heed these warning and review our policies. I’ve got a friend who always admonishes me to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but in this case, don’t we owe it to children to get it as close to perfect as possible? Are we trying to lead the pack or be the most accurate? I look at Williamson County Superintendent and State Superintendent of the Year Dr. Mike Looney’s recent actions as guidance. Williamson County was slated to start testing on Monday. Looney surveyed the landscape and decided he didn’t have enough confidence in the system to proceed, so he decided Williamson County would start on Thursday, after everyone else tested the system. This action spared many of his kids the disruption of starting a high stakes test only to have to stop midway and then retake it in the future.

We need to follow a similar path on a state level. We need to step back and take a couple years to make sure we get this as close to perfect as possible. Give the test, run through the process, communicate the results with school districts, but demonstrate the willingness to work as partners by not implementing the accountability portion of the policy for two years. The TNDOE could meet with parents and teachers and actually run through the tests and correct answers to demystify the process. Spending two years building up confidence in the accountability tool through actual collaboration with teachers, administrators, and the general public could possibly alleviate this annual fiasco dance we’ve been doing. If legislators and the TNDOE are so confident that they are on the right course, then they should be able to withstand the scrutiny. They should be willing to take input from those on the front line and adjust appropriately.

Some may argue that children can’t wait while we dither. Yet we are willing to push through legislation that rescues a few kids from “failing schools” while leaving thousands behind. We argue that the Achievement School District, despite research results, just needs more time. There is a constant chorus to be bold and think outside the box. In that light, think what a transformational leadership moment it would be if Candice McQueen announced, that due to obvious flaws in the system, she is going to suspend the use of test scores for teacher and school evaluations for two years in order to partner with stakeholders in making this process the best it can be. It sure would go a long way in restoring faith in the system if that happened.

It would be one thing if this issue was isolated to Tennessee, but Florida, Nevada, Montana, and 5 other states experienced similar issues last year and had to take corrective actions. So while some might charge that I am campaigning to end testing, I would argue that I’m championing the only means to preserve it. Keep doubling down and ignoring stakeholders and it will all collapse under its own weight. Go ahead and ignore the chorus and watch the behemoth crumble.

If the state is so concerned about the Opt Out movement that it won’t even create a policy addressing it, why not create an “opt in” movement? Why not create that giant tent we can all work under instead of treating parents and teachers like they don’t even know their own kids? The only way that can happen is through true collaboration. That means listening to those who do the work, both in classrooms and at home. That means total transparency when it comes to the test – how it’s created, how it’s scored, and how it’s going to count.

Dr. McQueen has been afforded a rare opportunity. This latest fiasco gives perfect cover to demonstrate that Tennessee is serious about its children and providing all of them the best educational opportunities possible. It presents an opportunity to look at what a true accountability tool could look like. One that parents, teachers and students could buy into and feel like they had some ownership. Maybe one we wouldn’t have to hold pep rallies to prepare for and valued the importance of civics, the arts, and industrial sciences. We can bury our heads in the sand and continue to try and prop up a broken model, or we can stand up and admit that it’s broken, reaffirm our commitment to our children, and enlist all of us in the repair process. We owe it to our children to create a system that provides the most accurate evaluation while taking away as little instructional time as possible, so I’m praying that there really is a new sheriff in town, and that she chooses the latter.

I disagree with Tennessean columnist Frank Daniels that now is the time to just hold the course for a couple of years. I would argue that now is the time to be bolder than ever. As Representative Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) recently said, “I am not saying we need to stop testing, but we need to make sure that the failures we saw on Monday — whether they are the fault of a vendor or the Department of Education — do not unfairly affect the evaluations of our schools.” Come on Candice, the kids are counting on you.



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An Open Letter to Tennessee Voucher Supporters



Dear True Believers,

Y’all got to be excited! Here you sit on the cusp of making history in Tennessee, despite a few pesky parents, educators, newspaper columnists, members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, school board members, students, and community members, who can’t appreciate all you do, by this time next week, you’ll be celebrating Tennessee joining the forward-thinking states who have provided a pathway out  for all those trapped kids in failing schools. Never mind that vouchers have never worked anywhere else, we all know Tennessee is different. So ignore the haters, this has been a long time coming, and Lord knows, you’ve worked hard for it and deserve it.

Legislators, I have got to say I am really impressed by your willingness to stake your political reputation on the idea of vouchers for the sake of those poor, poor children. Some may say otherwise, but I take it as evidence that you care about all children. Seeing as, for the most part, you will never even interact with these children. People don’t appreciate how expensive running for office every two years is and out-of-state education lobby groups have been extremely generous over the last several years. Heck, last year alone they dropped 260K on your campaigns. A million bucks over the last two years is a lot of cabbage. Especially now that some of you are drawing challengers. Your willingness to make this sacrifice shows that this truly is about the kids.

Now maybe all those lobbyists won’t go away, but just in case they do, one area that you might want to look at for recouping some of your financial losses is in the school building industry. Hear me out, now. We all know that once you take away the religious-affiliated schools, that there are not enough private schools to handle the demand of all these new voucher-carrying students. Luckily, there are already some lobbyist groups ready to step into the void. Now, that may mean sharing some of our children’s personal information, but you knew that was going to happen anyway. How else would we be able to decide who gets a voucher life boat and who doesn’t?

You rural folks, who have done a lot of the heavy lifting on this bill, might be a little worried that you might not get to benefit from this voucher bill. Fear not, I know you are being told that this bill is primarily for those poor kids in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, but let’s look at that a little closer. A lot of people don’t realize that just a couple of students can have a profound effect on a school’s overall grade.

Look at Williamson County, arguably the home of the best schools in the state, and specifically at Fairview Middle School. A few transfer kids with special needs threw off their results enough for them to get classified as a “focus” school. So, if a couple of priority schools in Memphis get rid of 100 or so kids each with their vouchers, then they’ll no longer be in the bottom 5% of schools. But there will always be a bottom 5%. So be on the lookout – Fayette, Maury, Grundy, Hardeman, Hancock, Roane, Sevier, and other counties – any one of you could come off the bench and suddenly become eligible for vouchers.

Do you know what the best part is? Let’s say Swiss Elementary School students were eligible for vouchers, but the parents disagree with the rankings. They believe in their school, and they don’t want to use vouchers to enroll in a private school. Well, that would then mean that any student in Grundy County could now get their private school tuition paid for with taxpayer dollars. Sweet! If those poor kids don’t want it, then it’s yours! Pretty good deal, huh?

Sure the schools in question may lose out on that needed cash to keep the lights on when they lose students because of these vouchers, but as Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) says, “In the end, the adults in (the schools), they’ll be OK, but the kids in them can’t wait.” So if a district loses a school or two to financial hardship brought on by lost funding, or if a great school has to scale back, it is all for the greater good according to Rep. Dunn. I’m assuming that’s why a State Representative from East Tennessee and a few from Williamson County are fighting so hard for a plan that won’t even affect them and runs counter to conservative beliefs, while those who it will affect voted against it. Hey, I saw Waiting for Superman. I know how all this works. Tennessee has spent enough on our schools with limited results, we need to take action.

It does my heart good to see so many putting the needs of so few first. Like Representative Dunn says we need to focus on creating new opportunities for children, not on finances.Now we just have to find a way to get some of that Title I money to follow the kids as well. Maybe we could even move Tennessee up from number three to number one nationally in Charter School growth. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, right? And I wouldn’t let it bother me that Governor Haslam didn’t even mention you in his recent State of the State speech. Probably just slipped his mind. I also wouldn’t worry whether any of this is constitutional or not, because who’s going to ask? Besides, whats one more potential law suit?

So lets inflate the balloons, strap on the party hats, and crank up the Kool and the Gang, because its time to celebrate. Unless, of course, some of those pesky parents, educators, county commissioners, school board members, African American State Representatives from Memphis, students, and community members who can’t appreciate all you do raise too loud of a fuss and stop this bill come Monday. But that will never happen…. or will it? The choice is ours.




A pesky parent