Peeling the Onion Back

“Rinaldo Barlassina, one of the most prominent italian referees at the time, was the victim of stone throwing during a match at Casale. After refusing to give a penalty, Barlassina used an umbrella to protect himself and he emerged unhurt. Ghirelli comments that ‘it is unclear if this was thanks to his stoicism or to the fact that the stones had run out’.”
John Foot, Winning at All Costs: A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer


Just a warning…I may curse a little bit today. This whole debate around third-grade retention has got me to the point where I’m ready to put a fork in my eye.

It’s not that I support the legislation, I opposed it when Schwinn and company first tried to pass it in 2020 as part of their push for Science of Reading adoption. They failed at that time and then brought it back during a Special Session under the guise of combating learning loss. That time they didn’t fail. So here we are.

We didn’t have to be here. Like I said, it was defeated once, and had some of those current loud voices been as loud then as they are now…well… hindsight is 20/20.

We talk a lot about “what democracy looks like”. Well, this is what democracy looks like. People who are elected to office pass laws that you don’t agree with but satisfy the desires of those who elected them.

Nobody in the history of governance has ever remained in office by just passing laws that appeal to the minority. Since Republicans have been consistently winning elections in Tennessee for the last decade…they got to be passing laws that appeal to someone.

I know, I know, gerrymandering, oppression, ignorance…I’ve heard all of the excuses, and that’s what they are excuses.

In any contest, the winners have never conceded an advantage in order to make it easier for the losing side to compete. That goes all the way back to the playground. You want to be on the winning side, you got to figure out how to beat the winning side at their own game.

In this case, win elections. I’m pretty sure that in its brief existence, Twitter has never been the source of a winning election. Screaming into the silo is just that, screaming into the silo. You want change, it takes less outrage and more outreach. Fewer fingers on the keyboard, and more boots on the ground.

So let’s take a realistic look at where we are at with third-grade retention minus the hyperbole.

Headlines and Tweets are screaming…”60% fall short on TCAP test”, while the Tennessee Department of Education is screaming “Historic gains”.

Both belie what the results really say.

First, TCAP is not a “pass/fail” test. It’s a measurement of how familiar students are with a set of standards on a certain day. In this case, it just happens to be Tennessee State Standards…or, if we are being honest, Common Core standards with the word Tennessee thrown in so Governor Lee can tell potential campaign donors that he’s eradicated Common Core in Tennessee. He hasn’t and we could spend the rest of the day offering up evidence to support that, but I’d like to get to the record store at some point…so we’ll leave that for another day.

The second point is that the third graders being tested are taking TCAP tests for the first time ever. Yes, they’ve done screeners and benchmarks, but nothing on the level of TCAP. It’s a big change, and hard to predict how they’ll respond to the increased pressure. This brings me to my third point.

The scores released are “raw scores”. That means they are simply the number of points scored out of 52 possible points. This year, 34 points are considered proficient. That is not the same every year. Next year it may be 35, or it may be 32. It changes year to year, which is why post-equating is done.

The state average this year is 29.5 points (Spr-2023-ACH-District Reference Table_05192023). That’s less than 5 points, give the same test on another day and it could be even fewer students considered at risk. Or it could be more.

Just because a kid doesn’t answer a question right on a certain day does not automatically equate to them not knowing. Just that they didn’t have the answer readily available that day. Was it because of nerves? Is it an unfamiliarity with the testing process? A question they didn’t understand? Did they go too fast? To slow? Maybe they honestly didn’t know. There are just too many variables to isolate one and then throw them in the failure basket.

Sometimes it’s simply a case of kids not attaching the same level of importance to something as us. This year, my son regularly scored in the low 20s on benchmarks. When I questioned him about it, his response was, “I don’t care about that. Why is it important to me? I’ll be honest, they gave it on a day I just didn’t feel like taking a test, so I guessed. My bad.”

Maybe not the response we want to hear, but it’s real.

So now we have the results, or I should say a portion of the results. We only have the ELA portion, math will be sometime next month.

The results we do have, show that 60% of the state’s third-graders are eligible for retention, but only if they do nothing. let me explain.

Parents can file an appeal. To me, that sounds about as appealing as the aforementioned fork. Send me any paperwork other than taxes that takes more than 60 seconds, and I’m out. Hell, my kids sign over half of their own permission slips. I just don’t have the capacity. So I’d be a no there. But a parent may want to do so and the law provides that provision. Odds are, based on communication by the TDOE, the appeal gets approved.

The student could take a retake and hope the child learned enough over the last two months to hit proficient. Because hypothetically instruction resumed after the administration of the Spring TCAP.

But…keep in mind…if your child is in Metro Nashville Public Schools…after TCAP they took Fastbridge, and after that they took I-Ready, now they’ll take a TCAP retake. If they go to summer school, they take another TCAP-type test at the conclusion of the 2-week summer school session. Then when they get back to school, after the first two weeks they’ll do Fastbridge again. For me, that’s a bit much. I’m bailing on the retake, unless I’m in below and hope to move up to approaching.

Now, if your child is in the approaching category, where according to the state, 35% of Tennessee third graders live, you got options. You can choose summer camp or high-dosage tutoring next year in fourth grade. By definition that tutoring will take place within school hours.

Summer school means the cancelation of summer plans and an interruption to planned activities. It also means that unless a student shows adequate growth on the post-test, defined as 5%, those 2 weeks won’t prevent you from having to enroll in tutoring. So this is a no-brainer to me, unless I really feel my kid needs it and we are planning on enrolling in tutoring anyways, I’m bailing.

That leaves enrolling in tutoring. Since it is during the school day, nothing extra is required from me. Do I believe there will be adequate tutors to cover the need? No. Can’t staff teachers? How are you going to staff tutors?

Yes, there are provisions made for remote tutoring, but if teaching remotely is ineffective, how will tutoring be effective? I had one principal go even further, if they didn’t learn it from a certified teacher, what makes you think they will from a tutor? That’s a fair question.

Bottom line, if I’m a parent of a third grader who scored approaching, I’m tossing results in the trash, signing up for tutoring, explaining to my child what the test does and doesn’t say, and getting on with my summer plans while preparing for fourth grade. I’m not giving into the hyperbole. I’m not gnashing my teeth over the scores. I know my child and I don’t have to justify anything to the state, the district, or anyone else.

For those kids scoring in the bottom 25%, it’s a different story.

That number represents just over 18k kids. Based on the data available there is no way to tell how many of those kids are ELL or have reading disabilities, and are therefore exempt from retention. Probably something we ought to figure out.

It is safe to say, all of those kids could benefit from summer school and tutoring. Maybe this is a method that ensures they get it. Maybe.

However, I feel about the policy, we should be equally concerned about 18k kids falling far short of mastery on TCAP. Just passing them along and hoping that schools do right by them, is not really a sound strategy.

This does provide us with an opportunity to talk about testing, and whether it is providing the measurement of learning we are looking for. I would argue that it’s time for a change.

Next year, we’ll bring benchmark testing into play, which means that once again we’ll be using a tool in a manner outside its intended purpose. At the very least, by adding the benchmark to the formula, we are further increasing high-stakes testing. Are you good with that?

I love the hyperbole on Twitter about all this being part of a Republican plot to destroy public education. Remind me again who the driving force behind charter schools was?

In Davidson County, I’d be surprised if there were more than 100 Republicans who enrolled their kids in a charter school. Pretty sure that’s true for the rest of the country as well.

Help me here, Teach for America, was that started by Republicans? How about TNTP? Yea…I thought so.

My point is that the weakening of public education is pretty much a nonpartisan issue. Everybody has taken their whack…including public education itself. So let’s reel the hyperbole back a bit.

As far as legislators go, assigning them wholesale ill intent, that’s a bit of a stretch.

Over the last 6 months, I’ve talked with State Senator John Lundberg (R-Bristol) on a weekly basis, sometimes twice a week. Most times I reach him on the first call, but I’ve never gone longer than 4 hours without a return call. Our conversations are not always quick ones, and I’ve come away with a belief that is genuinely trying to find a way to help students succeed. I don’t always agree with him, but I don’t need to make him a villain in order to disagree with his ideas.

We have this false narrative that if I disagree with you, I care less about the issue than you. I’m not sure where that one came from, but it often fails to hold water.

Do I think every elected official, on both sides of the aisle, shares his intent to serve? No. But they all need to be evaluated on an individual basis instead of assigning the same traits and intentions to everyone.

The biggest issue with all of this has been the communication and the timeline.

It all feels rushed, and with a lack of information, feels even more ill-conceived.

I would argue that if we had a fully committed Commissioner of Education overseeing the process during these transformative times, most of these issues could be alleviated. But unfortunately, Commissioner Schwinn tendered her resignation effective June 1, and her replacement doesn’t start until July 1. That leaves Deputy Commissioner Sam Pearcy to try and hold things together for 30 days.

For her part, Schwinn can’t even be bothered to show up at the office for her last week. This week she’s in DC again, as part of a panel convened at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education.

To sum things up, I believe the third-grade retention legislation is a bad policy.

I don’t believe it is borne from some kind of diabolical plot, as much as it is from people doing the best they can to find a solution.

I do believe that it is here to stay, so we need to gather data and assess what needs to be changed. Then work to change it.

The reality is that except for the bottom 13% of students, most kids aren’t in real danger of retention unless parents do nothing.

And as always, if you don’t like the laws being written, elect people that will write better laws. It’s really that simple.

Look at that…I got through this without cursing.

– – –

I meant to mention this last week but failed to do so. Some of you may remember Jeff Smith, MNPS’s Director of Visual and Performing Arts. Jeff suffered a mental crisis arguably brought on by the pressures of the job. He was placed on administrative leave by the district, and barred from campuses with little explanation. Sheriff’s visited his house to serve an emergency court order filed by his wife to remove his kids. He snapped and fled with the two teen boys in the car. He was arrested and held in Montgomery County Jail for several months while he awaits trial. Last month, MNPS terminated him.

This leaves him with no income, and worse, no benefits. I’m keeping my comments to myself, but suffice it to say he could use a little help while he navigates this chapter of his life. Some friends have set up a Go Fund Me account. I know he could use the support.

– – –

Putting this blog together requires a great deal of time and resources, If you think it’s valuable, your support would be greatly appreciated.

A huge shout-out to all of you who’ve already 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.

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If you’d like less opinion and more news, check out my writing for The Tennessee Star. It’s a bit drier but equally informative.


Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. I love “It’s really that simple”

    Yes. Absolutely true

  2. Just FYI…the scores are post-equated and the cut score for the post-equated score is converted back to a raw score so that it’s easily understandable by teachers and parents. So, that score will change from year to year as tests are slightly easier or harder. Most states also adjust by the SEM when setting the cut to account for the student who knows something but misreads the question. What I would add is that the only students likely to benefit by the retest are those who scored right below the proficient cut. If my kid missed the cut by one point, I’d take advantage of the first two options.

    • Agree with 90% of that but the post-equating portion does not jibe with Lairds testimony at SBE workshop. I’ll go back and watch. It’d be easier to understand if TDOE returned an email

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