A CONTINUATION OF A DISHONEST CONVERSATION

“What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.” 
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Dada”, says my 11-year old daughter grabbing a snack between classes, “I was talking with Mommy about TCAP testing. She says it’s always an option not to take the test, but that there could be consequences.”

“True”, I reply. waiting to see where she’s going with this.

“What kind of consequences? Are they going to take me out of advanced classes because they don’t have my test score? That’s kind of rude. Why can’t they just look at my work over the year and look at the progress I’ve made?”

“Good question.”

“I mean, sure at the beginning of the year I didn’t do great, but I’ve worked so hard and I’m doing really well now. But if I woke up on the day of the test and I was tired and had a headache, and I was grumpy, I probably wouldn’t do well. So you are going to base your opinion of me on one day? Rude.”

“I don’t disagree,” I respond, “But that’s the way it is.”

“Are you going to make us go in for the test?”

“I don’t know. I’m still taking in information and truthfully, a lot depends on what we have going on that week.”

“Well it all just makes me angry,” she says as she heads back to class.

Rightfully so”, I add, “rightfully so.”

Tennessee is one of those states that never even entertained the idea of canceling standardized testing this year. Since the inception of the pandemic, Governor Lee and his henchwoman, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn have been rending their garments over the plight of the state’s children due to the pandemic, with testing being a prime tool for salvation. Throughout it, all, continually painting themselves as saviors in a narrative that flips between crisis and cutting edge.

For example, over the last year, the Commissioner has bemoaned the flat literacy scores of the state’s kids. Less than a third are reading on grade level, this is a crisis. Yet, this week, when defending the department’s stance on testing to Tennessee Student’s For Success, she claims the following,

Tennessee’s accountability system is central to the academic progress made in the
state over the last decade and provides a critical view of how well educators, schools, and districts are
serving all students. Our team relies on the data to support strategy, best practices, and implementation
across all our districts. Only with that information can we strategically invest money, time, and energy that
our students and communities deserve. Understanding where our students are at this year will continue to
provide critical insights to our state, districts, and educators as we tackle those learning gaps head-on.

So if testing is a primary tool of a system in crisis… then wouldn’t it stand to reason that you might need to look at other tools? If you dee

The Commissioner goes on to claim that a commitment to testing is one shared by Tennessean’s,

Tennessee is fortunate to have an active, committed group of education stakeholders who share the same belief of the importance of statewide testing this year. We know those honest conversations about data and growth are essential to move the needle further, farther, and faster than has occurred before.

Hmmm…the only people in Tennessee I see pushing the testing of students are those that stand to financially benefit from the outcomes. You can count TSS among that group. According to their 2018 990, Executive Director Adam Lister pulled in $197K in compensation. he must have been doing something right, because the year before he only made $150K.

When it comes to actual advocacy groups, you know the ones that aren’t feeding at the financial trough, they don’t seem to agree with the commissioner. In actuality, just the opposite. The Tennessee Public Education Coalition is a statewide grassroots organization of teachers, parents, and community members advocating for better public education in Tennessee. They have long pointed out the fallacies involved with standardized tests and provide parents with a means to opt-out.

TSS goes on to ask the Commissioner what the TNDOE’s position on testing would be had the USDOE demonstrated a willingness to allow states to opt-out. Schwinn’s answer, if not so serious, would be considered pure comedy gold.

Regardless of USDoE action, Tennessee will hold the line on assessments because we owe that level of reporting and transparency to our taxpayers and communities. Districts and educators need a roadmap for strategic, responsive supports. Moreover, parents deserve clear, easy-to-understand information about how their child and their child’s school is performing.

Schwinn goes on to frame the collecting of data as a means to engage parents in an “honest conversation” around their children’s level of learning. Ironic, because the TNDOE has never engaged in an “honest conversation” about student outcomes.

In a recently released Op-Ed, TPEC outlines the dishonesty involved in the state’s testing proponents argument,

One law passed during the special session, the Tennessee Literacy Success Act, which has garnered criticism from literacy experts, includes these two statistics that were repeated several times as the bill made its way through the legislature:  

In 2019, Tennessee’s third-grade English language arts proficiency rate was 36.9%.  

In 2019, Tennessee’s eighth-grade English language arts proficiency rate was 27.1%.  

It is likely that most legislators reading or hearing those statistics would do some quick math and assume that around 63% of third-graders and 73% of eighth-graders are reading below grade level in Tennessee.  

In fact, according to the state’s 2019 TNReady data, less than 20% (19.65%) of students in grades three through eight are reading below grade level. The commissioner’s proficiency percentages strategically did not include the 45.5% of students in those grades who score in a grading category known as “approaching.” A student in this category is not reading below grade level.  

So much for an honest conversation. But nothing brings the money , and fuels the paychecks like a narrative around student failure.

Commissioner Schwenn likes to paint herself in a benevolent light by pointing to recently passed legislation that supposedly will hold teachers and schools “harmless” during this testing period. To what level that holds true is debatable, I will continue to argue that if you are keeping score, there are winners and losers, and therefore, consequences. But also keep in mind that the legislation passed requires districts to achieve 80% participation in order to truly be held harmless.

For a district like Nashville where 45% of students still attend school remotely, that’s a challenge. But, according to a recent article by Nate Rau in the Tennessee Lookout, not an insurmountable one.

According to the Tennessee Lookout, districts have until June 18th to request a waiver on the 80% participation rate provided they can meet certain criteria. The guidance stated, “… all waiver requests must be accompanied by substantive evidence of (1) meaningful engagement with families, (2) clear effort (with multiple attempts) to provide a testing opportunity for students, and (3) demonstrate strong communication that reflects significant flexibility afforded to the student for testing times and locations.”

I’m not sure that MNPS can lay claim to meeting any of those requirements. My assumption would be that the Commissioner will likely use this power as a bargaining chip to exert more power over individual LEA’s.

In MNPS’s case, this shouldn’t be a problem, as they are currently in close alignment with the TNDOE’s wishes. Be in tutoring, curriculum, or the navigator program, when the Commissioner says, “jump”, MNPS has shown a propensity to ask how high. Notice how complaints levied against the district earlier in the year by Commissioner Schwinn over the usage of CARES act funding just kind of disappeared?

There was never a follow-up report on how the situation was rectified. We were just left with the assumption that all was now copacetic. A serious situation that suddenly wasn’t so serious once MNPS fell into line.

Meanwhile, yarns about the current state of students continue to be spun. My favorite quote in the Lookout piece comes from school board member John Little.

“We all agree that we don’t want to judge teachers on the results, but I stand in the middle in that I want to see academic results so we can create a plan for academic recovery for the kids.” 

What’s the assumption here? That teachers are just kind of eating bonbons, sitting in the hot tub, killing time until someone comes along and tells them the plan? Really? You don’t think teachers are daily making assessments and designing strategies in order to supplement any areas of shortcomings? That if we didn’t administer TCAP, kids would be left wandering in the wilderness and nobody would have clue what they needed?

Things got a little more interesting today in regard to school districts being mandated to test students. Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum is reporting that the U.S. Department of Education *has* approved Washington D.C. schools’ request for a blanket testing waiver, noting that the vast majority of students are learning virtually. They’ve done so despite recently denying waivers to several states. Including Michigan who is currently suffering increased levels of COVID.

Yesterday the feds told California that they must test, except where it is not viable. So it’s becoming clear that there is some room for maneuverability, though it remains to be seen to what extent. Perhaps, ultimately Memphis and Nashville won’t have to test at all, or the results will eventually be declared invalid.

What I will do in regard to my own children remains equally unclear. I see no reason to supply data points for the state to use in making a dishonest argument. I guess if I believed that the desire to test was rooted in doing right by children, I would be more inclined to participate. Evidence that Ms, Schwinn fails to provide despite her best efforts.

My increasing concern is not around a lack of data available to the department of education, but rather the sheer volume that is about to flow in their direction. On top of TCAP results, starting next year the TNDOE will have access to results from a screener administered 3 times a year, pre and post-test results from summer school, and tutoring programs. And likely student responses to climate surveys. That’s a lot of information to put in the hands of people that regularly put their interests ahead of student and family interests.

Yesterday my son and I were in the car returning from baseball. “What’s the panorama survey?”, he asked.

“Oh, that’s a survey the district gives in order to get feedback on how you feel about things. Is it that time again?”

“So it’s a real thing?”

“It is.”

“I thought it was a hack.”, he says, “I got the email and it said my answers wouldn’t be seen by anyone, including my parents. That sounded like something a hacker would say and I told them that. Am I going to get in trouble for calling them, hackers?”

I smile and respond, “No son. It does sound like hacker behavior. I think you did the right thing.”

REVISIONIST HISTORY

Emily Freitag used to be Emily Barton and she used to be an assistant Superintendent at the Tennessee Department of Education. These days she makes a pretty penny – about a quarter of a million a year – as the Executive Director and founder of a non-profit called Instruction Partners. This week Freitag ruminates on what she learned from her time as a leader during what was previously the largest infusion of cash into the country’s education system.

It’s a nice whitewashing of the past that largely ignores the failing that came out of that time. Of course, she points out that under her watch Tennessee became the fastest-growing state in the country. A claim that Tennessee hasn’t been able to make since those heady days a decade ago. Hmmm…what was that recent quote by Governor Lee?

“These big waves of federal money, they’re like economic meth. They feel good when you get it, but they are killing you at the same time.”

Lee wasn’t talking specifically about education policy, but his words could be applied to what’s peddled by Freitag and her contemporaries.

I recently came across an old posting from the TNEd Report. Dated 2013, the post revealed Freitag billing herself as follows, “Emily Barton is responsible for the dramatic improvement of student achievement through many strategies including implementation and success of Tennessee’s evaluation system and the adoption of Common Core State Standards.”

Yep, felt good at the time, but killing us at the same time.

SHORTCUTS

An interesting argument put forth by Tennessee State Rep. Torrey Harris, “This would eliminate me and one other member of this committee from being mentioned in our textbooks,” says one of first gay TN House members of GOP bill that bans educational materials that “address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles.” Passes 8-7. Luckily the bill doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in the Senate.

As Tennessee rushes to turn back the clock to 2019, some districts are trying to find ways to incorporate remote learning into their current school configuration. Jeffco schools in Colorado is one of them. “We realize the remote learning experience is not the same for all of our students and teachers,” said Matt Walsh, community superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools. “We’re going to take all of our best learnings so that any student, any family, from any area, can have the exact same high-quality experience.” Hat’s off to the district for its willingness to do the heavy lifting.

The education arm of the Country Music Association is teaming up with the National Museum of African American Music to bring artists like Breland, Willie Jones, Reyna Roberts, and Tiera into the classroom to share their stories of breaking into the industry. Pretty cool and uniquely Nashville.

Props to Percy Priest Elementary student Nathan Jeong who has won the junior division of The National Association of State Aviation Officials contest for Tennessee! For his efforts, he earned $100 for his school and will go on to compete at the national level. Well done!

hat’s a wrap. 

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.



Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. Hi TC –

    Sorry to bother. Thank you for your continued truth-telling and my personal education about the state of education. Your columns are addicting. And I love to see you quoted in other articles.

    I would like to contact the Tennessee Public Education Coalition to see about any opt-out info they can provide regarding upcoming testing, but am unable to locate them via the web. By chance, do you have any contact that you could share? Or can you direct me to any other source for testing opt-out info?

    Many thanks.

    Mary Saal

    >

  2. I still can’t fathom how MNPS is on the one hand glued tight to tests for routing kids to score-segregated magnet school wait-lists (an utterly iniquitous practice), and simultaneously acts “holier than thou” when criticizing the state for wanting its still TN Ready results.

    I’m curious about the TN Ready results this year. Doubtless this is another opportunity to see the unshakeable correlation between household incomes and scores. And _maybe_ we’ll learn something about online vs in-person that we don’t already know. We should not fear data. It’s _just_ data. And, because we cannot compare our data to that of any other state, the data in TN are particularly worthless. But, we should not fear it.

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