A number of years ago, I bought a Toyota 4Runner from a friend. Man, I loved that car. To this day I miss it. I’d had it for about 6 months when I realized that it had some issues. I spent some money and fixed a few things. But it wasn’t enough. Finally one day, the transmission dropped on it. I remember standing in the garage and the mechanic telling me that he could fix it, but it would cost a lot and I’d probably have more problems very shortly. It was getting to the point that it was going to be more expensive to fix the issues than what the car was actually worth. Reluctantly, I scrapped the car and went looking for and acquired a new one.
The Tennessee Department of Education has faced a similar dilemma for the last few years. Every spring, without fail, there is some issue with the tests and they have to send them to the garage to be fixed. I think it’s safe to say that this year the equivalent of the transmission falling out happen. Parents, teachers, and even legislators have been telling the TNDOE that things are getting to the point that it’s getting cost prohibitive to fix and that we really need to start exploring a new policy. But unfortunately, the message doesn’t seem to be getting to the TNDOE. They just keep reaching for the checkbook, making a temporary fix, and then praying nothing else goes wrong.
This month saw the scrapping of Part II of TNReady for grades 3-8 statewide because Measurement, Inc. couldn’t deliver materials on time again. This time, not only did the TNDOE cancel the testing, but they also severed the contract with Measurement, Inc. The problem with this action was that was now there was nobody to score the tests that had already been taken. Saner heads in Williamson County tried to exercise some common sense, realizing the results were going to be useless, and cancelled testing for high school students in addition to grades 3-8. That was met by the Department of Education bringing the hammer down. Those tests, by God, were going to be given come hell or high water. Under the threat of losing 3 million dollars in funding, Williamson County moved forward with testing. Makes you wonder about the wisdom of the policy when the state has to evoke threats in order to get compliance.
So every student that could possibly be rounded up was tested while educators shed a little more credibility, a commodity of which precious little remains. You see, kids, despite what the folks at the Department of Education may think, are not stupid. They read the paper, they watch the news, they listen to adults, they observe and interpret. What they’ve interpreted is that this testing thing is a fiasco. They know there are boxes of tests sitting in a warehouse waiting to be scored. They know that even if they are scored, it’ll be late fall before scores arrive, too late to make any real impact. They also probably realize that instead of being honest with them about this whole testing process, we just keep making it up as we go along.
I keep waiting for an adult to show up, diagnose the problems with our testing process, and propose some honest real life solutions. Though, to be fair, teachers have plenty of ideas about what to do. Unfortunately, it seems like no one cares to listen. Too much at stake with the DATA. Instead, the TNDOE just keeps reaching for the checkbook. This week they wrote an 18.5 million dollar check, under the guise of an “emergency,” to testing conglomerate Pearson to grade the tests. Let me say that again, and trust me it won’t sound any saner – they wrote a check for 18.5 MILLION DOLLARS to Pearson to grade tests that were not taken by all students and whose results won’t be available until halfway through the next school year.
By the time those test results come in, teachers will have designed and implemented lesson plans. Are we supposed to believe that teachers will get those results in December, look at them, and say, “Oh wow, I’ve been teaching my kids like they were advanced, and they were only proficient back in April. I better scrap my lesson plans and start over.” Yea, that’s not going to happen. Do we think that teachers and administrators haven’t found other types of data to give them information to serve their students? Are we thinking parents are going to sit around for the next 6 months thinking, “I can’t wait until these test results come in so I can know if Johnny is proficient or not proficient”? No. Because it’s useless data, and it needs to be treated as such.
Tennessee lawmakers say the state cannot afford to fully fund the BEP. It cannot afford to fund a health plan that would serve all citizens. Yet it’s perfectly capable of writing an 18.5 million dollar check to grade tests where the results are absolutely useless. The best part? There is not a single one of those state representatives who preach the gospel of the prudent use of the taxpayer dollars that have publicly taken exception to this 18.5 million dollar emergency expense. Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) thinks it’s more prudent to call a special session of the legislature to potentially sue the federal government over transgender people using school bathrooms than to hold hearings on why our testing policies have failed our kids so much. It’s more important to protect our children against a supposed transgender threat than it is to ensure that our education policies are properly serving our children. We continue to give lip service that its all about the kids despite our actions sending a counter message.
Where are the Democrat representatives in all of this? At this point, only Reps. Bo Mitchell and Craig Fitzhugh have shown the courage to step up and attempt to hold the TNDOE accountable. Mitchell rightfully questioned what the Department of Education considers an emergency and pointed out that Pearson has had just as many issues as Measurement, Inc. I know it’s campaign season, and hearings would take away from summer door knocking. But we preach accountability all the time, so isn’t it time we demonstrated what that looks like?
Hearings are essential right now because its virtually impossible to get honest answers from the TNDOE. They’ve hunkered down into a bunker mentality, only releasing information as they see fit. For example, I’ve had an open records request in for all communication between Nakia Townes, assistant commissioner for data and research, and Measurement Inc for two months now. Every two weeks I request when I can expect a response and this is an example of the reply I get, “My team is working on this, and I apologize for the delay. We’re working to get this to you as soon as we can, but we’re sorting through very large volumes of information. As I mentioned in my last email, we are working through requests in the order they were received.” Without hearings, I’m skeptical that this request will ever get filled.
I am further baffled that the TNDOE was allowed to write the 18.5 million dollar check to Pearson under the guise of this being an emergency situation. Do they even comprehend what constitutes an emergency? According to Wikipedia, an emergency is a situation that poses an immediate risk to health, life, property, or the environment. Pray tell, which of these areas do half-taken tests now rotting in a warehouse cover? The Momma Bears wrote a brilliant parody of this assertion that illuminates the insanity. As they eloquently point out:
The REAL Emergency is the mismanagement of tax dollars and our children’s time in the classroom. What we need is an emergency hearing to understand why grading these tests and working with Pearson is necessary! We need an emergency overhaul of the TDOE!
Scrapping a car and getting a new one can be a beneficial experience. It forces you to think about upgrades and improvements the industry has made over the last several years. You are forced to talk to experts and do a little research. There is an opportunity to re-asses you needs and really think about if the old car was adequate or not. You know, could you get better mileage? Are there models that research shows have less problems? Do you need more capacity then you did when you first bought your old car?
These are the kinds of behaviors that the TNDOE should be engaging in. Hawii recently removed standardized testing as a part of teacher evaluations. New Hampshire is looking at some new ways of testing. Indiana is doing something crazy, they are listening to what people are saying and using the flexibility afforded by the recently passed ESSA act to reevaluate what testing should look like. The point is we don’t have to just rush out and find a new vender. We don’t have to heavily invest in a model that could be obsolete in 5 years. We could take the time to listen to parents and teachers and produce policy that all stakeholders could buy in to instead of having it dictated to them by the department of education. We could truly make it about the kids and what is best for them.
I was sad when I got rid of that 4Runner. At that time it just seemed like the perfect car for me. However, once I got rid of it, and invested in a new ride, some amazing things transpired. I was able to get to places on time because my car wasn’t constantly breaking down. I had more time to focus on other things because I wasn’t hanging around a garage waiting for the car to get fixed. I had more money because I wasn’t having to continuously write checks for repairs. I’m pretty confident that if the Tennessee Department of Education abandons their current testing policies and develops new ones, they’ll experience similar results. But as my AA friends like to say, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Time to take that first step.