high stakes

There’s always been confusion surrounding Tennessee’s growth model. With a missing year of data, new questions pile on

At a time when scores are about to be used for high-stakes decisions in how to improve Tennessee’s schools, gaps in the state’s data and uncertainty about how scores were derived have left Memphis officials wondering how to interpret the torrent of information.

Last year’s chaotic state testing, which led to the cancellation of the state’s test for grades 3 to 8, left a crucial gap in the data meant to help make decisions about schools and teachers.

School leaders have also said they were puzzled by the state’s methodology in reaching the so-called growth scores upon which districts and schools are judged — particularly by how they arrived at the Memphis district’s low score.

Even those who are paid to sift through the data say they are having trouble getting answers to questions about the growth scores, known as TVAAS. Bill White, chief of planning and accountability for Shelby County Schools, conceded to board members last week that he didn’t know the ins and outs of the complex formula and the changes meant to compensate for the missing data.

“I have personally never been shown all the mathematics behind our data and how this works,” he told board members. “I do know that it has been peer-reviewed and vetted and it’s essentially been held up among those statisticians. But there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that no one has been able to walk us through.”

The confusion has renewed skepticism about the state’s value-added model, which is supposed to help officials identify the impact that schools and teachers have on student performance. The system relies on the state’s data measuring student growth in districts.

Part of the problem is last year’s botched testing, which is having multiple ripple effects throughout the state.

This year, growth scores are comparing 2016-17 test results with the 2014-15 school year, the most recent data available. That throws a wrench in how to assess which school or teacher is responsible for a child’s growth over a two-year period. And for elementary schools, that means there is no data for fourth graders this year since testing in third grade, the first year students take state tests, was canceled.

In addition, one subject was dropped entirely from TVAAS calculations because social studies questions were a trial run for elementary and middle schools students and did not count.

Statisticians for the most part have figured out how to calculate growth even when a state transitions to a new test. But the missing data creates a whole other host of challenges the revisions attempt to account for.

One Memphis charter leader said he still isn’t quite sure how his school even got a score since last year his highest grade level at the school was third grade, the first year of testing.

“It’s such a convoluted formula, it’s hard for us to understand. We’re not sure how we got (our score),” said the charter leader, who declined to be named because he was still seeking answers from the state.

Damian Betebenner, a senior associate at Center for Assessment that regularly consults with state departments, said missing data on top of a testing transition “muddies the water” on results.

“When you look at growth over two years, so how much the student grew from third to fifth grade, then it’s probably going to be a meaningful quantity,” he said. “But to then assert that it isolates the school contribution becomes a pretty tenuous assertion… It adds another thing that’s changing underneath the scene.”

At the same time, TVAAS scores for struggling schools will be a significant factor to determine which improvement tracks they will be be placed on under the state’s new accountability system as outlined in its plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. For some schools, their TVAAS score will be the difference between continuing under a local intervention model or being eligible to enter the state-run Achievement School District. The school growth scores will also determine which charter schools are eligible for a new pot of state money for facilities.

The state has data analysts based across Tennessee to help districts with their questions and provide data simulations for the complex formula that has been replicated in other states.

“Of course, the reason it is complex is because we want it to be fair for educators and therefore capture as much data and nuance as possible – which is discussed at length in the technical documentation,” said a state department spokeswoman.

The state has also published an overview video of how the formula works and details on the recent changes in a 46-page, formula-packed document from SAS, the private company that calculates teacher and school scores for the state.

But as far as knowing how the state gets from A to Z, White said he still has questions.

“I’ve had some questions about getting access to certain data myself,” said White, who routinely interprets data for the district. “We would like a lot more access to what goes into TVAAS.” (He later declined to elaborate.)

He’s not the only one. When the Tennessee Education Association unsuccessfully sued Knox County Schools over its use of TVAAS in awarding teacher bonuses, access to data on how the scores were calculated was central to the association’s argument that the district denied teachers due process, said Rick Colbert, TEA’s general counsel.

When Colbert attempted to subpoena technical documents on the calculations, SAS blocked it partially because the request would divulge “trade secrets.”

“When they’re called upon to defend it you get a lot of general statements but you can’t get a lot of information to see if you can back that up,” Colbert said. “There’s so much about TVAAS that can’t be explained.”

Board member Mike Kernell called it a double standard and asked White last week if the district could request a demonstration of the complicated formula.

“I think the state department of education ought to show its work if they’re asking children to show their work,” he said.

Surprising report

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.