Are Children Learning

Vanderbilt study: Support for Common Core on the decline among Tennessee teachers

PHOTO: G. Tatter
A bus sponsored by Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity was parked in front of an education summit in downtown Nashville in September.

Significantly fewer Tennessee teachers support the Common Core standards this year, possibly because of the lack of training and support they receive and concerns about the way it’s impacted their evaluations, according to a recent study.

The study, conducted by the  Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development at Vanderbilt, compared survey responses about the standards from 2013 and 2014. The researchers sought not only to give a snapshot of teachers’ feelings about the standards, but also to offer explanations for the source of their feelings. About thirty percent of the state’s teachers –about 27,000  overall–replied to the survey both years.

The Common Core State Standards, which determine what Tennessee skills students learn in math and language arts, are poised to be at the center of the education debate during the legislative session that begins in January. In the media and among politicians, the debate around the standards has been centered on local control of education, and not on how the standards have played out in the classroom.

Teachers were asked several questions about the standards on both the 2013 and 2014 surveys, although the questions were somewhat differently worded. In 2013, the standards had not yet been fully implemented.

Here are some takeaways from the study:

  • The majority of teachers who responded to the survey oppose the implementation of the standards. An additional 13 percent of respondents do not oppose implementation of the standards, but would like implementation to be delayed.
  • Significantly fewer teachers agreed with the statement “teaching to the Common Core State Standards will improve student learning” in 2014 than in 2013. Sixty percent of teachers thought the standards would boost learning last year; this year, only 39 percent did. Researchers hypothesized that the drop in support was related to negative classroom experiences, as 2013-14 was the first year the standards were fully implemented. Their hypothesis was not supported, though. The first year of common core implementation for most teachers was 2013-14, but math teachers in grades 3-8 began teaching the standards in 2012-13. “This phase-in gives us an opportunity to see whether opposition to the CCSS is largely the result of negative classroom experiences—the ‘we’ve tried it and it doesn’t work’ hypothesis,” the authors of the studies wrote. They found math teachers in grades 3-8 were not more likely than other teachers to oppose implementation in 2014, and that in both 2013 and 2014, they were slightly more likely than teachers of other subjects to agree that teaching to the new standards would improve student learning.
  • Teachers unhappy with the state’s teacher evaluation overhaul, which resulted in student growth on test scores being a factor in a teacher’s score, were more likely to oppose the Common Core State Standards. The authors of the study say this might be because those teachers were concerned that the standards would negatively impact their evaluation scores. Teachers with the lowest scores on teacher evaluations actually opposed the new standards at lower rates.
  • Teachers dissatisfied with their jobs and careers were more likely to oppose the standards. But researchers noted that it was hard to tell if the teachers were dissatisfied with their jobs because of the standards, or vice versa.
  • The more hours of training a teacher had on the standards, the more likely he or she was to support them. Researchers noted that this might be attributed at least in part to the fact that teachers who oppose the standards might be less likely to engage in trainings.

You can find the complete study here. Do the findings reflect your experiences? How do you think they should influence state policy? Let us know in the comments.

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Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.

Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores

The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.