primer

Your guide to district- and school-level TNReady scores

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Tennessee soon will release district- and school-level scores from the state’s new, and supposedly harder, standardized test. And for many, the results will be grim.

While the State Department of Education released statewide scores last month, this week’s scores will provide the first look at how individual high schools and districts fared in the first year under the state’s new testing program, called TNReady.

The statewide scores showed far fewer high school students scoring on grade-level than in years past, though state officials have cautioned against comparisons. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen emphasized that drops in math, English and social studies are because the new tests for those subjects are harder and are aligned to more rigorous standards.

Tennessee is only releasing scores for high schools because end-of-year tests for middle and elementary schools were cancelled in April after a series of logistical and technical challenges. The testmaker, Measurement Inc., was fired.  

Here’s what you need to know about the new test scores, and how they will be used:

Scores are supposed to provide more accurate information about postsecondary readiness.

Statewide scores mirrored Tennessee’s ACT scores, which suggest that they more accurately reflect how ready students are for college. With more open-ended questions and fewer multiple-choice ones, TNReady and the state’s new social studies TCAP aim to measure critical thinking skills necessary to succeed after high school. The math and English tests also were aligned for the first time to the Common Core State Standards, which have been in all Tennessee classrooms since 2012 and are supposed to be geared more toward college readiness than previous benchmarks. (The state is rolling out revised standards based on the Common Core next school year.) Science scores are the exception, as the state won’t revamp science tests until new standards are phased in during the 2018-2019 school year.

Scores from this year and last year are apples and oranges.

Most schools will see declines in passing rates, but that doesn’t mean that the schools declined in quality. State officials emphasize that any big differences in scores are a reflection of the new test, not changes to the schools or districts.

But the state is still measuring growth.

Even though direct comparisons of test scores are invalid, they still can measure growth, say state officials.

As always, Tennessee is using its complicated value-added formula, which is supposed to show how much teachers contribute to individual student growth. In theory, the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, measures a student’s growth, but it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. This year, the state examined how students who scored at the same levels on prior assessments performed on TNReady in 2015-16. Students were expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement. If they performed better than their peers, no matter how their performance compares to last year’s, they will positively impact their teacher’s or school’s score.

Teachers can choose whether to count scores in teacher evaluation scores.

High school teachers can choose not to have TVAAS calculated with their 2015-16 evaluation scores if it doesn’t boost their overall score. Instead, they can use TVAAS from years past.

This year’s scores won’t be able to put schools on the state’s “priority school” list.

Schools on the state’s priority list — which identify those in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent — have been eligible for state takeover in recent years. But this year’s scores can’t land a school on that list. To address this year’s bumpy transition to TNReady, the State Department of Education plans to release two priority lists in 2017: one that includes available TNReady data from this year, and one that only includes data from the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years. A school must be on both priority lists to be eligible for state intervention.

The score reports will look different.

This year’s scores no longer will be categorized as advanced, proficient, basic or below basic. The state has rebranded performance levels as mastered, on-track, approaching grade level, and below grade-level. State officials also unveiled a redesigned score report this fall. It’s designed to help students, parents and educators understand better what the student scores say about their college readiness. The reports also will offer next steps for improvement.

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”