Interesting moment

Tennessee civil rights leaders push back at superintendents’ call to pause state testing

PHOTO: Peyton Hoge
Members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition participate in the group's third annual summit in February in Nashville. The group formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty.

A group of civil rights leaders in Tennessee is urging the state to press on with standardized testing — placing them at odds with the superintendents of the state’s two largest and most diverse districts.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph asked Gov. Bill Haslam this week to press pause on TNReady testing to address widespread problems with the assessment.

But the members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty, pushed back on Wednesday. The group argued that a moratorium on testing is not the answer to technical problems that plagued many students this past spring in the state’s transition to computerized exams.

“The quality of the TNReady assessment, which is aligned to our state standards, is not in question … [but test delivery issues] must be fixed,” the coalition said in a page-long statement.

“We urge all of our education leaders and policymakers to press forward, tackling our testing challenges head-on, and rebuilding trust by staying the course and getting it right for every student in Tennessee,” the group wrote.

The statement was signed by 13 education advocates including the leaders of the NAACP’s state conference, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville.

The exchange represented a unique moment between the coalition of civil rights advocates and the black superintendents of schools in Memphis and Nashville. Those districts represent one-fifth of Tennessee’s public school students, and most of the student population in their cities are black or Hispanic.

In their Aug. 3 letter sent on Monday, Hopson and Joseph told Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, that they have “no confidence” in TNReady.

Shawn Joseph greets students in Nashville, where he has been director of schools since 2016.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

(Tennessee’s gubernatorial election is set for Nov. 6. Read what the candidates say about testing and other big education issues here.)

Calling for a “do-over” on the state’s testing program, Hopson and Joseph said that three years of missteps and outright failures administering TNReady has tanked public trust to “irretrievably low levels.”

Haslam has not commented about the superintendents’ request but told Chalkbeat last month that he believes TNReady is a good test with delivery issues that need to be fixed.

READ: Here’s the list of everything that went wrong with TNReady this year

The governor also said he believes passionately that Tennessee’s gains on national tests since 2011 stem from state policies grounded in higher academic standards, a test that measures student progress based on those standards, and using the results to hold students, schools, and teachers accountable.

The coalition backed that agenda on Wednesday. “Our Coalition believes that the path forward lies in maintaining a focus on setting high expectations, monitoring student and school performance, and prompting decisive action when they fall and stay behind,” the group said.

The coalition is a nonprofit organization funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, according to a spokeswoman for the group. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also is supported by the Gates and Kellogg foundations. You can read our full list of supporters here.)

Below is the coalition’s full letter, including individuals who are members of the group’s steering committee.

Taking aim

Declaring ‘no confidence’ in TNReady, Memphis and Nashville superintendents call for pause in state testing

The leaders of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are asking outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam to pause state testing indefinitely to let the next administration address a bevy of problems with the assessment.

In a letter sent Monday afternoon, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph wrote that a “do-over” is needed on the TNReady testing program to salvage the confidence of students, parents, and educators.

“After years of repeated implementation failures and missteps by multiple vendors, we believe educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels,” they wrote Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen.

“We are challenged to explain to teachers, parents, and students why they must accept the results of a test that has not been effectively deployed,” they continued.

A spokeswoman for Haslam did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for McQueen said the commissioner had not yet received the letter, which was dated Aug. 3.

The message from the superintendents — whose districts in Memphis and Nashville represent nearly a fifth of the state’s public school students — further elevates testing as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

However, Hopson and Joseph said action is needed before the next administration and General Assembly take office in January.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

That’s unlikely to happen, though. Haslam has fiercely championed having a state assessment that measures student progress based on Tennessee’s new academic standards. He told Chalkbeat last month that he does not want problems with testing to undo state education policies that he believes have led to gains on national tests.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said Tennessee already has a working group on testing that’s composed mostly of educators.

“We’ve engaged educators extensively in the development of TNReady, and for the past several months we had educators from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools serving on our Assessment Task Force to advise our next steps with TNReady,” Gast said in a statement.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s high school in Memphis prepare to take their TNReady geometry test online last spring.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials. But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results be moot for this year for accountability purposes.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online again. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Hopson and Joseph, whose districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding, also want more state money to offset the technology costs related to TNReady.

“Districts including ours spent tens of millions of dollars over the years investing in new technology to prepare for an online assessment that never came to fruition,” they wrote.

“These investments essentially amounted to unfunded mandates by the State, and in the end resulted in largely wasted local taxpayer resources that could have been directed into teacher salaries, professional development, and other critical needs. By the time the State achieves a fully functioning online assessment system, our original investments will have been rendered obsolete …”

Gast said the state has invested an additional $1.5 billion in technology for schools since 2011, including doubling the amount of annual recurring technology funding. She noted that students have used computer tablets purchased for testing for other instructional needs during this time.

You can read the full letter below.


Here are the 37 Tennessee educators chosen to offer advice on TNReady testing

PHOTO: Getty Images

Tennessee has tapped 37 educators to serve as advisers to the state Department of Education and its testing companies after widespread problems this spring with the standardized TNReady assessment.

Thirty-one teachers and six testing coordinators were named Tuesday as the state’s first TNReady Ambassadors. They are to provide ongoing input and feedback to the state and its two TNReady vendors, Questar and Educational Testing Service, during the upcoming school year.

The group “will play a critical role in our work to improve the testing experience for students and teachers,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Specifically, they’ll be tasked with helping to plan and present test-related professional development across the state; evaluate instructions, manuals and other testing materials for usability and clarity; and review test questions, content, and forms. For their part-time work, the ambassadors will receive additional compensation of up to $15,000 each for teachers and up to $10,000 each for test coordinators, depending on the number of hours they work.

The state also has hired a veteran educator from Cookeville to oversee the test’s administration as Tennessee’s new executive director of assessment logistics. Denette Kolbe has coordinated testing since 2011 for Putnam County Schools, where she also has worked as a teacher, principal, supervisor, and assistant director. Part of her job will be to work with the ambassadors.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen meets in April with members of her testing task force, a group of educators, school advocates, and elected officials who offer the state feedback on assessments.

McQueen announced all of the appointments as the state seeks to troubleshoot TNReady and re-establish the credibility of Tennessee’s beleaguered testing program amid backlash from educators, parents, and elected officials. The state previously announced plans to seek proposals from other companies to take over the test’s administration beginning in the 2019-20 school year.

Of the more than 900 educators who applied, below are the 37 who were chosen: (An asterisk denotes testing coordinator.)

  • Donny Anderson, Blount County Schools*
  • John Luke Bell, Knox County Schools
  • Aaron Bible, Greeneville City Schools
  • Brandi Blackley, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Terri Bradshaw, Blount County Schools
  • Jessica Brown, Williamson County Schools
  • Tina Childers, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Lisa Choate, Cannon County Schools
  • Laura Davis, Knox County Schools
  • Brian Davis, Shelby County Schools
  • Kevin Deck, Williamson County Schools*
  • Kristi Dragan, Wilson County Schools
  • Laurie Driver, Knox County Schools*
  • Melinda Fleischer, Rutherford County Schools
  • Rashaunda Foster, Shelby County Schools
  • Erin Glenn, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Mario Grant, Shelby County Schools
  • Tiffani Harris, Jackson-Madison County School System
  • Sarah Haynes, Bradley County Schools
  • Curtis Herring, Arlington Community Schools
  • Adrema Higgins, Lebanon Special Schools
  • Eric Hoffman, Rutherford County Schools
  • Tiffany Hogan, Johnson City Schools
  • Michael Hubbard, Kingsport City Schools*
  • Traci Jones, Achievement School District
  • Joseph Jones, Cheatham County Schools
  • Carol Keasley, Rutherford County Schools
  • Jennifer Maag, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Tracy McAbee, Polk County Schools
  • Adam Moss, Cleveland City Schools
  • Jamie Opperman, Rhea County Schools
  • Stephanie Page, Maury County Schools
  • Brant Riedel, Shelby County Schools*
  • Marion Samuel, Tipton County Schools*
  • James Sullivan, Rutherford County Schools
  • Liza Vaughn, Williamson County Schools
  • Sarah White, Williamson County Schools

Under Questar, most of this year’s problems were due to technical snafus during the transition to computerized exams for mostly older students. However, the state also received widespread complaints about confusing directions and last-minute changes to paper testing materials for younger students.

READ: Here’s the list of everything that went wrong with Tennessee’s 2018 testing

The headaches have led to a laundry list of changes for TNReady, including slowing the state’s timeline for transitioning to computerized tests.

Tennessee also has hired Educational Testing Service to help Questar, its own subsidiary, in the coming year — and plans to hire another TNReady administrator within the Department of Education to focus solely on customer service. A state investigation revealed that Questar was ill-equipped to respond to the volume of calls received during the three-week testing window that began in April.

As a result of all of the glitches and changes, Tennessee has docked Questar about $2.5 million out of its $30 million contract this year.