Taking a hit

By getting testing wrong again, Tennessee could undo what it may be getting right

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam attends a Knoxville school assembly in 2016 to celebrate Tennessee outpacing almost all other states in gains on a national science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

After languishing for decades, Tennessee is now considered a pioneer in education improvement circles, while its standing on national tests has risen from the bottom to the middle of the pack over the last decade.

Quick to embrace higher academic standards, the state also explored new strategies to transform struggling schools and adopted a controversial teacher evaluation system grounded in student performance. With its 2010 federal Race to the Top award, it poured millions of dollars into teacher training and coaching.

So it was dumbfounding this spring when a third straight year of problems emerged with TNReady, the standardized test that’s the centerpiece of Tennessee’s policy agenda aimed at becoming a national leader in student achievement.

After a failed rollout of computerized testing in 2016 and scoring issues in 2017, the stakes had never been higher to administer the test successfully.

But on the very first day, thousands of students struggled to advance past the login page — and things went downhill from there. Subsequent testing days were marred by a cyber attack, a fiber optic cable cut by a dump truck in rural Tennessee, and a systems design error that made 1,400 students take the wrong exam.

By the time the state limped across the finish line last week, technical glitches had interrupted more than half of the original testing days, and state lawmakers had passed emergency legislation weakening how the results can be used.

“We’ve failed significantly with TNReady — not once, not twice, but three times,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democratic candidate for governor and member of a House education committee. “It hurts systems that are already beset with credibility problems.”

Now, many stakeholders worry that public outcry over this year’s sloppy testing will unravel years of carefully crafted accountability work in public education.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the front podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 25, the last day of the 2018 legislative session, as the chamber’s education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year’s TNReady scores.

An early sign came when lawmakers stepped in before testing was even finished to shield students, teachers, schools, and districts from the state’s score-driven accountability systems.

“It happened so quickly and passed with such a large majority that it was jarring to those of us who thought we had some serious momentum with the systems we’ve been working on for years,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, leader of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force.

“It’s created this environment of instability going into a gubernatorial election year, and you begin to wonder what else could be wiped away.”

Politics of education

Over the last 16 years, Tennessee has managed to follow the same general roadmap for improving its schools — first under the administration of Democrat Phil Bredesen and now under Republican Bill Haslam.

But this year’s near meltdown of testing has put Haslam’s administration on the defense in the governor’s final year in office.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and her team are trying to see if the test results are valid and how they can be used. They’re also in daily talks with the U.S. Department of Education over whether the state’s emergency TNReady laws conflict with a federal law that requires student achievement-based accountability.

Haslam will do damage control this week after returning from an overseas economic development trip. He’s expected to beat the drum about the role of a state test as a measuring stick to ensure that children are learning and taxpayers get their money’s worth for the billions spent on schools.

McQueen offered an early glimpse at the messaging late last week. She said this year’s poor delivery of a computerized exam under testing company Questar does not mean that the exam itself is bad.

"We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

“We have an exceptional test,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday, adding that the fix needs to come with how testing is administered. She added that it would be a mistake to change course on the state’s education agenda.

“The three things that we have focused on — high standards, rigorous assessment, and greater accountability — have been the backbone of much of our success in Tennessee,” she said. “We need to continue on the path that we’re on because we are much closer to success than not.”

Tension with testing

Indeed, national test results have been encouraging. Tennessee’s ACT average finally hit a modest milestone last year, and scores on several national tests are up since 2011. Just months ago, the state was basking in the glow of a massive Stanford University analysis showing Tennessee’s academic gains have outpaced the rest of the South — and much of the nation.

But testing that exceeds federal requirements has taken its toll on school communities, partly because districts have introduced extra exams to make sure students and teachers are on target leading up to TNReady.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“I think we’ve gone dramatically overboard with testing,” said Dan Lawson, a superintendent in Tullahoma. “Everybody felt a very heavy hand on them when it came to this year’s assessment.”

That tension bubbled up last month during legislative hearings amid the online testing interruptions.

“What we have created, I’m afraid, is a culture of testing instead of a culture of teaching,” Rep. Sheila Butt told McQueen.

The Republican from Columbia went on to read a letter from one teacher: “I’m not sure this year if we’re actually wanting academic accountability,” the teacher wrote, “or if we’re merely testing our students’ resilience in the face of obstacles and our teachers’ patience with the new system.”

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs her chamber’s education committee, offered another viewpoint.

“I remember a retired teacher telling me one time that she just wanted to be left alone, close the door, and she would go into her classroom and teach. And I wanted to tell her that that’s how we got to be 46th in overall student achievement,” said the Somerville Republican, “because we did not know what was going on in that classroom.”

“We have got to know,” Gresham concluded. “We have got to be able to evaluate and know what to do going forward.”

Joshua Glazer, a professor and researcher at George Washington University, said it’s understandable that frustrations with TNReady could amplify concerns about testing in general. But he cautioned against any knee-jerk reaction that minimizes assessments.

“We haven’t gotten the testing and accountability thing right yet, for sure,” said Glazer, who has followed Tennessee education policy. “But that doesn’t mean we want to go back to the 1980s when everybody could do whatever they wanted and we saw massive inequality in opportunity as a result.”

For more on how Tennessee got here, check out why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.

Yeshiva probe

As Yeshiva probe heats up, state issues guidance for reviewing nonpublic schools

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
A school bus sits outside an all girls Jewish school in Williamsburg.

The state education department released long-awaited guidance Tuesday on the process that local authorities must follow to determine whether nonpublic and religious schools, including yeshivas, are meeting standards equivalent to those governing New York’s public schools.

The guidance arrives in New York City on the heels of a long-running probe into whether city yeshivas are providing an adequate secular education. The state direction also comes after the recent firing of former city investigator Mark Peters, whose office was scrutinizing City Hall’s involvement in the yeshiva investigation.

Will Mantell, spokesman for the city education department, said its officials will “work aggressively to implement” the state’s instructions.

Under the guidelines, local school districts must perform a review of each religious and independent school within their boundaries. But Tuesday’s guidance also folds in an amendment lawmakers passed this spring that largely applies to yeshivas: after an initial review by the local school district, the state education commissioner makes the final determination over schools that are nonprofit corporations, have a bilingual program, and operate during a certain time frame.

The new guidance comes after a three-year city Department of Education probe that found troubling lapses in secular education at the city’s yeshivas and asked for direction from the state, which recently granted oversight of the schools to the state education commissioner. Controversy heated up again last week as city education officials admitted they still haven’t visited many of the schools, whose students often come from the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, which is seen as a powerful voting bloc.

And last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio fired Peters, who quickly warned that de Blasio’s decision could reflect an effort to quash his office’s yeshiva probe. At a press conference on Monday, de Blasio denied that City Hall tried to interfere in any of Peters’ investigations.

The guidance, which stresses that oversight of nonpublic schools be “a collaborative effort,” sets out the procedure the city should follow and provides for a new round of training for investigators and a timeline of three years, up to December 2021, that districts can have to complete their reviews. Thereafter, districts will revisit the reviews every five years and maintain an open dialogue with nonpublic school leaders.

A preliminary city probe found that in many yeshivas instruction in English and math lasted only 90 minutes, didn’t take place every day, and was sometimes voluntary. Lessons in math didn’t go beyond basic division and fractions, science instruction was almost nonexistent, and teaching often occurred in languages other than English.

Naftuli Moster, the founder and executive director of Young Advocates For Fair Education, or YAFFED, an advocacy group that has pushed for more oversight of religious schools, thinks this timeline could stymie needed change. He notes that the city’s earlier review “may now have to be revisited in light of the new guidelines, dragging this investigation on for even longer while students in ultra-Orthodox schools continue to be deprived of a substantially equivalent education,” he said.We don’t believe that the yeshivas that have been stonewalling should be rewarded with even more time.”

In addition to core coursework, schools must abide by other requirements, including conducting “fire and emergency drills” and meeting “immunization requirements for their grades.” (A few Orthodox Jewish communities, which sometimes have low vaccination rates, have recently suffered outbreaks of measles in New York and New Jersey.)

New York City officials have reviewed many yeshivas already, and Elia said the city “should take the guidance that we have provided” and apply it to what they’ve found.

“The State has given the DOE clear authority to visit and evaluate all non-public schools, and we immediately requested the earliest possible staff training on the new guidance and will begin visits, evaluations, and recommendations and findings of substantial equivalency as soon as we’ve completed the training,” Mantell said.

The department will give priority to the “the six schools that have denied us access” and move “forward with the 24 schools that are part of our inquiry, which may include additional visits or gathering additional documents,” he said.

The state’s actions come as the number of students attending Jewish day schools and yeshivas in grades K-12 is growing rapidly, reaching a record 110,000, nearly rivaling the size of the city’s charter sector, which serves roughly 114,000 students. (Approximately 148,000 students attend parochial or independent day schools in the city.)

When asked about certain yeshivas denying the city access, Elia said, “If someone does not allow anyone in from the local school district to review and look at what’s happening there, there obviously would be consequences.”

The first remedy would be compelling schools to comply. But continued non-compliance could mean a loss of funding for certain services, like textbook and transportation, which Elia said is a rare occurrence. Parents at the schools would be notified, usually within six weeks to two months, that their children must be transferred to an appropriate school. If those students stay at the school past the established deadline, they could be marked as truant.

Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

Fixing Special Education

How will Chicago repair the harm from special-education neglect?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Laurel Henson, at the podium, spoke at a press conference in Chicago on Nov. 12, 2018, about her 2-year struggle to get a school nurse on staff to help her son, who suffers from seizures.

Illinois may be forcing Chicago Public Schools to repair its broken special education program, but the ambitious effort still begs a critical question: What happens to hundreds of Chicago children who were harmed by the district refusing them services that would  help them learn?

Neither the state nor the school district is saying yet, even as advocates for students in special education have pressed for answers.

Those children include an unnamed third-grader trapped by a tactic the district apparently used to avoid offering services required by federal law.

The child can’t read the word cat or dog, health-legal advocate Barbara Cohen said, but his teacher didn’t believe in giving low grades. So the third grader received a B in English. Then, she told the State Board of Education on Friday, when the child’s mother sought an evaluation for special education services, school officials denied the request based on his having a good grade.

Laura Boedeker, the state’s monitor overseeing special-education reforms, acknowledged that schools vary in understanding the laws and best practices. Her job, she said, “is to have those discussions and explain what good practices look like.”

That’s not likely to satisfy parents and advocates pushing for quicker action that would help families like the third-grader’s. On Friday, they pressed authorities like Boedeker, who previously served as the district’s in-house attorney.

But with a staff of just three, including herself, it’s not clear how fast Boedeker can move. In four-and-a-half months on the job, she’s only visited 10 of the district’s 600-plus schools.

“Do you have enough boots on the ground, enough help to do this work at the rate you need to do it?” asked Illinois State Board of Education member Susie Morrison.

“We could have an army and not have enough boots on the ground,” said Stephanie Jones, the board’s general counsel. “What we need more than anything is eyes and ears that tell us what is going on so we can take action. Unless we can put an ISBE employee in every school, which is unrealistic, we need parents and teachers and staff members to tell us what is going on.”

Recognizing the lag in responding to parents, the state board is weighing whether to extend the one-year deadline for filing complaints about denied or improper services.

It’s possible, Jones said, that “we can wave this until we have a system of corrective action in place.”

Neither the state nor district have answered questions like: How many students could be eligible? When exactly will the system go into effect? And what roles should advocates and schools play?

Boedeker said that federal officials have insisted that teams who put together students’ individualized education programs be involved in the remedy, because “they’re the ones on the front lines with these students.” 

But lawyer Matt Cohen said he and other advocates want a process that involves more people than the IEP team.

A child who, for example, went without a one-on-one aide for many months or who didn’t get placed in therapeutic day school when needed “might have had a profound loss,” Cohen said.

How the district will compensate that family is the question.  

“They may need more than just a few hours of tutoring to make up for that, they may need months and months of additional services and a specialized process to help them catch up,” Cohen said. “We’re encouraging families whose kids were hurt to bring their complaints to the state, and to seek action to get their individual child’s needs met.”

Jones said that board officials and the school district, federal government and special education advocates are discussing school guidelines for identifying students harmed, notifying their families, assessing damages and offering remedies.

About half a year has passed since a state probe found the school district violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services — like aides, therapy, outside placement and busing — to students in what the district calls its Diverse Learners Program.

The state board’s Jones and Boedeker tried to placate critics by preaching patience.

“From the outside looking in it looks really slow,” Jones said, “but I think we’ve accomplished a great deal in the time we have had.”

Patience doesn’t sit well with parents desperately worried about their children.

Laurel Henson, whose son suffers from seizures, said she’s been pushing to get a nurse on staff at Smyser Elementary for two years, but has encountered “delays and excuses.” On Nov. 1, the school finally granted a meeting to discuss an IEP, she said.

“In that time, he’s had a significant increase in seizures at his school causing fatigue, aggression and bed wetting during the night,” she said. Despite her hopes for the monitor, “nothing has improved for my son and it now feels like neither CPS nor the state are accountable for ensuring students like my son have a free and appropriate education.”