Last 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.