Are Children Learning

Tony Bennett: Indiana should have renamed Common Core at the start

(The first of two stories with experts from former Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett’s interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. For the second part, go here.)

Indiana’s former state Superintendent Tony Bennett was his usual outspoken self on a recent trip to Denver.

He was invited there to speak at a Donnell Kay Foundation speaker series and while he was in town he sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado Bureau Chief Maura Walz. (The foundation also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat Colorado.) Bennett, who faces a May hearing on ethics charges for allegedly using the resources of his office for campaign purposes, talked about the case, Indiana’s dumping of Common Core standards, his attitude toward his critics and what he hoped his legacy would be.

Bennett was a strong early champion for Common Core, education standards that 45 state ultimately agreed to follow. Indiana last month passed a bill to void its adoption of Common Core and draw up new state standards. Here’s what Bennett had to say about Common Core.

Lawmakers, he said, didn’t always know much about Common Core:

Bennett said the pushback that led Indiana to void its adoption of Common Core, and other states to consider following its lead, is unfortunate:

“I think we have legislators that are against something that they really haven’t researched very well. For instance, I can tell you, I am not certain some of the legislators I’ve dealt with who are opposed to Common Core could stand up and tell you why they’re against Common Core.”

On Indiana’s adoption of Common Core, Bennett explained his motives:

“When I was in Indiana, I pursued adoption of the Common Core in large part because I was very alarmed at the percentage and rate at which students had to be remediated leaving high school. So I thought that was a terrible drain on our system; I thought it was wrong. Gov. (Mitch) Daniels one time referred to it as a breach of warranty, that when we send kids out of the K-12 system and they need to be remediated. So I looked at Common Core as a potential solution to that. Higher standards, greater rigor, greater expectations, and an opportunity to elevate our children to be more competitive. The discussion has been lost in all of this, federal overreach, by inserting the word curriculum as opposed to standards.”

Bennett blamed messaging for the Common Core backlash:

“It is unfortunate that the federal government felt the need to be so visibly in front of this issue. Because it wasn’t their issue. So that’s been a problem. In conservative states that are worried about federal overreach, that in and of itself created a problem.”

But Indiana’s Common Core adoption, he said, was not influenced by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or the federal government:

“I never one day felt pressure from Secretary Duncan to adopt Common Core. Never once. And we were a state that dropped out of Race to the Top. So believe me, if a state could have walked in and said, hey, we’re not going to do this Common Core thing, it could have been us.”

Criticism of Common Core, he said, is often contradictory. Critics say the standards are too weak and at the same time they say Common Core tests are too hard:

“It’s been an argument that comes out of both sides of one’s mouth. In one instance, we don’t think that the standards are very good, but on the other instance, we don’t like the fact that our students’ performance might go down.”

The majority of Indiana teachers, Bennett said, support Common Core:

“We were all-in in Indiana. As a matter of fact, I think that Indiana is going to be a really interesting study going down because I frankly think teachers were ready to move in that direction.”

Bennett said there never would have been a Common Core controversy in Indiana if the state had just adopted them with a different name:

“I always told my staff, it was one of my greatest mistakes in office: I should have re-branded those things as the Hoosier Standards for College and Career Readiness. And these are Indiana’s new standards! These are not Common Core, these are Indiana’s new standards and we’re going to adopt them like Indiana standards are always adopted! Which we did. We’re going to implement them the way we’ve always implemented standards so that there was this total buy-in.”

Indiana’s well-regarded prior standards were not superior to Common Core, as critics often argue, he said:

“Indiana standards that we worked off of prior to the adoption and implementation of Common Core, we referred to as a mile wide and an inch deep. They did more to take away local control than Common Core did! We had so many indicators and so many standards that teachers were literally trying to make sure they hit every one and jam all this information into 180 days of school. With Common Core, the fewer, clearer, deeper standards — it enabled, in my opinion, and I’m a former classroom teacher, my daughter is currently a third grade teacher and has taught in the fifth grade, if you ask her, you know what she would say? This gives me greater flexibility, greater autonomy, to be more creative about developing state of the art, 21st century lessons for my kids.”

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McQueen declares online practice test of TNReady a success

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Tennessee’s computer testing platform held steady Tuesday as thousands of students logged on to test the test that lumbered through fits and starts last spring.

Hours after completing the 40-minute simulation with the help of more than a third of the state’s school districts, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared the practice run a success.

“We saw what we expected to see: a high volume of students are able to be on the testing platform simultaneously, and they are able to log on and submit practice tests in an overlapping way across Tennessee’s two time zones,” McQueen wrote district superintendents in a celebratory email.

McQueen ordered the “verification test” as a precaution to ensure that Questar, the state’s testing company, had fixed the bugs that contributed to widespread technical snafus and disruptions in April.

The spot check also allowed students to gain experience with the online platform and TNReady content.

“Within the next week, the districts that participated will receive a score report for all students that took a practice test to provide some information about students’ performance that can help inform their teachers’ instruction,” McQueen wrote.

The mock test simulated real testing conditions that schools will face this school year, with students on Eastern Time submitting their exams while students on Central Time were logging on.

In all, about 50,000 students across 51 districts participated, far more than the 30,000 high schoolers who will take their exams online after Thanksgiving in this school year’s first round of TNReady testing. Another simulation is planned before April when the vast majority of testing begins both online and with paper materials.

McQueen said her department will gather feedback this week from districts that participated in the simulation.

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Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central Time and 9 a.m. Eastern Time in participating schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some high school students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.


Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018


The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.


Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches


“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”