Another year, another headline on problems with our state’s standardized testing programs. TN Ready has been decidedly not ready since it rolled out in 2016. The latest issues — almost 10,000 scores miscalculated and hundreds of teachers assigned the wrong student — do nothing to inspire confidence in how well these tests are actually assessing what our students know and how well our teachers are performing in the classroom.
These new, harder tests are supposed to show our students are “college and career ready,” and if they’re learning what they need to learn at each grade so they will be ready to go on the next year’s test.
Tennessee not only measures how well students understand the concepts — that’s measured under achievement — and how much students have learned compared to the year before — that’s the “value-added” assessment or growth.
In 2016, the state had planned for an all online version of the test. School systems across the state hurried to make sure they had the hardware and the internet access to meet the demand of hundreds of students being online at the same time.
The state’s vendor for that exercise was Measurement, Inc. Their servers failed to handle the necessary volume of testers. Complaints came from across the state of frozen computer screens from exasperated teachers and administrators.
So the state said, “OK, we’ll use pencils and paper.”
The only problem was the vendor hadn’t planned on sending out hundreds of thousands of test booklets, answer sheets and instructions. They had to get them printed — quickly — and delivered to more than 120 school systems.
They didn’t meet the deadlines and the test was cancelled for elementary students.
This year, the pencil and paper testing seemed to go OK. Everybody got a test booklet. They did some limited online testing, with plans to add more schools next year.
The tests were boxed up and sent off to be scanned and scored. School systems waited. And waited. And waited.
Cumberland County delayed high school report cards about one month beyond the end of the school year so that End of Course tests could be included. They’d been told the state would definitely have scores back by the end of school and would have to be included on those second semester final grades, so they had waited and included the first semester grades. The end-of-year delay left the school system holding grade cards to ensure fairness among students, though the delay meant a number of kids were left twisting in the wind for weeks, wondering how they had fared.
And the vendor delivering tests to Nashville took some Cumberland County tests to the wrong place.
Now the latest fiasco. While no Cumberland County students were affected, about 29 teachers were. The standardized tests are used as part of a teacher’s evaluation score. This score is important in terms of granting tenure to teachers and, in some cases, ensuring continued tenure status for teachers.
Much has been made of the data slowly being released about the scores.
In English for grades 3-8:
•5.7 percent of students have “mastered” the content
•28.1 percent are on track
•44.7 percent are approaching the standards
•21.5 percent are below grade-level expectations
•8.9 percent of students are considered mastered
•29.1 percent are on track
•36.1 percent are approaching
•25.9 percent are below grade-level expectations.
There is no data from 2016, because the state stopped the elementary tests. These scores can’t be compared to any achievement tests before because the new test is considered harder. It has more challenging questions, is based on different standards and requires students to provide short answers or fill in the blank, instead of simply selecting from a multiple choice list.
Many in the state have sounded the alarm about how poorly students performed on the test. I’m not really that worried about student performance this year. I’ve been through about three different versions of the annual achievement tests since I’ve been covering education — starting in 2002. There’s always a dip in scores the first year, especially with such a different format.
In time, students will adjust to these higher expectations. They’ll start performing better on the tests and everyone will pat themselves on the back about how much they’ve done for education in Tennessee — unless another wave of change sweeps the state. Then we’ll start all over again.
What worries me is that, until that happens, we’ll continue to hear about how bad our schools are, that they’re failing, that our teachers aren’t good teachers. Many great teachers will leave the profession as they are held accountable for crossing an ever-moving finish line.
Some may even use these scores as “proof” we need vouchers to send students to private schools. Vouchers won’t cover the cost of most private school tuition, so those who can afford to make up the difference will leave schools. When they go, they take state funding away that is so desperately needed.
And in the meantime, we’ll spend millions on tests that simply don’t work.
Each testing season I’m reminded of Goldie Hawn’s quote in the movie “Overboard.” The kids are scratching themselves, covered with poison oak and the school administrator is complaining they were playing sick to get out of taking placement tests for the school.
“You can sit here and smugly lecture me on the importance of tests? Tests which exist to pigeonhole children’s potential, a thing which cannot possibly be measured.”
The quote goes on. If you haven’t seen the movie, it might be worth a watch. It’s pretty funny.
What isn’t funny is the continuing testing debacle in Tennessee. Right now, the Tennessee Department of Education earns a mark in the “below expectations” range.