Another 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.