Tennessee’s Accountability Problem

blogNot long after my first child was born, I came to the realization that children were expensive and that I was going to need to find a means to make a little extra income. Luckily, I had worked as a bartender for many years and had a friend who owned a bartending service. Thus, I entered the world of special event bartending to make a few extra bucks.

This past weekend, I worked an event where a number of problems arose in the beginning that threatened to derail the evening. We were able to keep things on track though because the event coordinator and I came together and discussed the problem, proposed a solution, and executed the planned solution. Not once in our conversation did the assignment of blame come up. It was only after the evening was successfully completed that we take a look back at who was at fault. The review was done not to point a finger, per se, but to identify weak points and how they could be addressed going forward in order to prevent the repeat of such errors.

Compare my past weekend with the last several months in Tennessee education-wise and it’s night and day. At the end of last school year, Tennessee made the decision to move to a new state-wide standardized test, TNReady, with a new company and testing platform . One that would be administrated entirely online and would give supposedly more meaningful data than the previous TCAP tests that had been given. Unfortunately, those plans did not work out and the system crashed in February when Part 1 of the test was given. That should have been when the Tennessee Department of Education took the lead, got everybody together, and based on their input, began mapping out a path forward. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.

What happened instead was that people immediately began pointing the finger at everybody else and a hastily concocted plan was thrown together, switching to paper and pencils was going to solve all problems, and we kept moving forward.  Not surprisingly, as happens with most hastily concocted plans, Plan B fell apart as well  and the finger pointing resumed. The same thing happened for Plans C and D, until eventually the TDOE was forced to cancel all tests statewide for grades 3-8. But don’t think that just because the tests stopped that the finger pointing stopped. Oh no. It just increased.

The last few days have seen a volley back and forth between the state and Measurement Inc., the now-fired testing company, over exactly whose fault this fiasco is. What neither side seems to get is that right now, students, teachers, and parents care less about whose fault it is and more about what the plan is to get things right. Last I checked though, there doesn’t seem to be a plan. Not only that, but now the state is trying to make sure it doesn’t lose control over individual districts who realize that this is a fiasco and just stopped all testing – high schools included.

The Superintendent for Williamson County Schools did just that. He saw the futility of testing this year and when the state cancelled testing for grades 3-8, he went a step further and cancelled state testing for all grades. Which is just common sense. Unfortunately the TDOE didn’t see it as such and forced WCS into giving the test under threat of losing $3 million in BEP money. That to me makes absolutely no sense.

If you wreck a car, you send it to the mechanic to get fixed; you don’t just keep driving until another part fails. Unfortunately, the state is still focused on accountability and can’t see that the car is wrecked. They think that it’s imperative that students remain accountable for their learning despite the TDOE not knowing who is going to score these tests or when they will be scored. Do they really believe that there is meaningful data here to be mined, and that students will treat these tests as anything more than a joke at this point? What they are doing is acting like a petulant parent who ignores their own flaws in order to hold their children to an unnecessary standard, while completely missing the opportunity to teach a bigger lesson.

It’s kind of like this scenario: I’m working a wedding and the ingredients to the bride’s signature drink didn’t make it to the reception. And instead of either the wedding planner or me going to get the ingredients, we stood in the middle of the reception arguing about whose fault it is while the guests waited for service. And if a guest decided, screw this, I’m going across the street for a drink while you guys figure it out, the event planner would try to force them to remain until we got to the bottom of it. That’s a scenario that wouldn’t work at a wedding reception. And it’s not working for the TNReady fiasco in Tennessee either.

I’m not sure what it’s going to take for Commissioner McQueen to realize that she’s got a real train wreck on her hands, but she really needs to get her head around that fact. I have yet to hear a heartfelt apology to students or teachers, or any acknowledgement of the TDOE’s role in this train wreck. I’m assuming that this being an election year, and with a new poll showing that education is a top priority for voters, some on-the-ball state legislator is going to call for hearings about this testing fiasco. (At least I hope they will.) If all that comes out of those hearings is who’s at fault and there’s no clear plan going forward, then the problems are only going to mount.

At the root of all of this is what we place priority on. We focus on accountability and make outcomes secondary. That’s why we have all the focus on testing. Not because we really care about how children are learning, but because we want to make sure that schools and teachers are being held accountable. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself, when do the test results come in? Under the best of circumstances, it will be July. But really, it’s probably going to be well into the fall before we see those results.

Well, here’s another news flash. Teachers do their planning for the upcoming year before test results come in.  So those scores will have virtually no impact on next year’s planning. Whereas if we really cared about the outcome, then teachers would get the scores back in time to incorporate them in to their lesson plans. They won’t be able to see areas where children struggled and plan strategically to combat those areas. They won’t be able to see what level their coming in are at make sure their lesson plans are appropriate.  The bottom line is that these scores are not used at all when it comes to planning curriculum and instruction. How could they be?

The three counter arguments I regularly hear from defenders of the test are a) that teachers can use test results from their incoming students to adjust lesson plans, b) that the scores give parents insight into their children’s progress, and c) the results are useful in long term planning. In the case of adjusting lesson plans based on test results, by the time test scores arrive teachers have already begun accumulating “data” on students either through talking with fellow teachers or interacting with the students themselves. This type of “real data” is far more valuable to teachers anyway. Things also get a little fast and furious once school starts again. Teachers begin moving forward and tests scores may reinforce some deductions, but there is just no capacity for wholesale alteration of plans. As for parents’ use, I can only speculate. But If you don’t have any idea how your child is doing by observing and interacting with them and talking to their teachers, then you are doing this parenting thing a little differently than me.

It’s the long term argument that I really find fascinating though. Apparently these test scores are supposed to give us insight into trends so that we can alter instructional plans to affect students in future classes. But wait a minute, I thought we were in a crisis mode and kids couldn’t wait while we tried to figure out the best way to proceed. That’s why we can’t cancel testing and take time to get the policy right. We need more data on kids right now, so that we can get them the help they need now not down the road. At least that’s what we are told when the reform movement defends charter schools, Teach for America, and achievement school districts.

It’s that talking out of both sides of  their mouth that is done oh so well. Look at Tennessee’s Achievement School District – they like to credit themselves for being responsible for an increased intensity on the educating of our most challenged children, yet we’re 5 years in and they have not proven to be at all effective. And yet they have done nothing to alter their mission. The truth is that standardized tests, like Achievement Districts, deliver none of the promise offered up by their supporters. Anybody who has ever paid attention to education policy also knows that tests can’t offer any long term planning benefits because by the time we get to that mythical place in the future, we’ll be using a whole different measurement.

It is way past time to begin having honest conversations with ourselves about the role testing should play in our education policies, and I’m beginning to think that will only be possible by having legislative hearings. Without state senators forcing participants to provide honest answers about how this year got so bad and how our testing policies align with our educational goals, I don’t believe we will be able to get past the finger pointing stage. Case in point: I have had an open records request filed for the last 6 weeks with TDOE for all conversations between Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns and Measurement Inc. from last year until April 2 of this year. It still has not been filled, nor can they tell me when it will be. I’m willing to bet if state senators were to ask for that information during a hearing, it would become a lot more readily available. It’s in that light that I encourage everyone to write to their representative and see if we can’t have an honest conversation about education in Tennessee.

That conversation should include, but not be limited to, what should happen next year? We don’t have enough time, in my opinion, to hire another testing company and develop a new state-wide test before this coming school year. So should we have a moratorium on state-wide testing while we work it out properly? And transparently? And what will become of this year’s scores, assuming someone is hired to grade these tests that the TDOE is forcing students to take? Should any school, teacher, or student be judged by these scores? I don’t think so.

Once we do resume state-wide testing, how often should it be given? What should the scores be used for? Perhaps we need to have a discussion about what accountability should mean moving forward? I believe the only way we will ever get any sort of meaningful data from standardized tests is if we remove ALL accountability from them to begin with – that is, if we remove all the high stakes from these tests. If they aren’t tied to teacher evaluations, school accountability, student grades, etc., and instead are only used to get a snapshot of student achievement, then maybe we can look at that data and see how we are doing. But now? I think we are doing it wrong and it’s imperative that we fix it.

Categories: Uncategorized

8 replies

  1. My high students are incredulous that they have to take these tests – long and boring tests- that are pointless. It got even worse when they found out that there was no one to grade them. This situation would be a joke if it didn’t impact our students’ learning so adversely.

    I have not been able to teach effectively since last Monday, when MNPS gave the TnReady tests. There have been tests on an almost daily basis since then: ACT, AICE, Cambridge, AP, Exceptional Ed assessments…it never ends. In two weeks, students will be taking final exams. And of course, the announcements over the PA calling students to take their tests are a persistent interruption. Testing has come to have a negative effect on education.

    Thank you for writing this. I sincerely hope that legislators will listen and place a moratorium on testing. Students, teachers, and parents have lost faith in these standardized tests.

  2. So very wonderfully said! Thank you for your time and energy, I will be using your awesome logic when I write my representative! This is very informative and I will be sharing with my friends, family and anyone else I can get to read it!!!!

  3. A bride with a “signature drink”? I did a whole lot of signing, way before I was legal to hold a pen. A girl liking her booze that much…well…


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