More backlash

Citing ‘multiple years of failure,’ Knoxville school leaders vote ‘no confidence’ in state

PHOTO: TN.gov
Haslam with his education chief, Candice McQueen

Tennessee’s third-largest district voted Wednesday night to draft a letter of “no confidence” to the Tennessee Department of Education, Gov. Bill Haslam, and Knoxville-area lawmakers.

The letter from Knox County Schools board is the latest in a backlash against the state over how the department evaluates teachers and schools.

Problems with pre-K and kindergarten teacher portfolio evaluations became the issue that pushed board Chairwoman Patti Bounds to say the department “still takes no ownership” of its mistakes. Portfolios are used to evaluate educators who teach pre-K, kindergarten, and subjects not included in TNReady standardized testing. Portfolios can include videos showing student progress during the year.

Earlier this week, the superintendents of the state’s two largest districts, Memphis and Nashville, wrote to Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to pause state testing until after the election because “educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels.”

Tennessee has taken pride in the progress of its students on national tests and has toughened up its requirements for student learning and evaluating teachers. But the foundation for its analysis, the state’s new online test, TNReady, has been fraught with technical setbacks since it was introduced in 2016.

State lawmakers were so concerned about the problems with TNReady that they passed legislation ensuring the scores would not be used to negatively impact teachers, students, or schools. School-level scores could be released as early as late next week.

Some Knoxville board members wanted to echo the sentiment of Memphis and Nashville superintendents about TNReady, but settled on highlighting the more timely portfolio issue, Bounds said.

“The portfolio system is a mess,” she told Chalkbeat. “The Department of Education has had multiple years of failure.”

The board will likely meet Tuesday in a special meeting to approve a letter, she said.

First-year problems for the teacher portfolios have resulted in error messages or questionable low scores for teachers. It is unclear how many teachers across the state are affected, but a spokeswoman for the department said about 7 percent got the lowest overall score. The state department attributed the problems to user error while one of the state’s teacher organizations blamed a system glitch.

“Every time something fails, the Department of Education blames it on the teachers. And some of their reasons are just not valid,” Bounds told Chalkbeat.

But the issue may reach beyond teachers who got an overall low score. One teacher got the second highest possible score on her evaluation, but she could not explain a low score in one section. She presented her issues with the portfolio system to the Knoxville school board Wednesday night, Bounds said.

“The state likes to deal in percentages, but I like to deal in people,” she said. “If there’s one person whose portfolio was done incorrectly, it matters.”

Sara Gast, a state department spokeswoman, said teachers who received low scores because of mistakes made when the portfolios were submitted can ask to have them reviewed again, and receive comments on their work.

McQueen has also invited several superintendents, including Bob Thomas of Knoxville, to give feedback on upcoming changes to the portfolio process.

She also provided an email from a Knox County teacher who reviewed portfolios praising the state for its process and chiding teachers who did not take full advantage of the training.

“I have personally reviewed four different teachers’ collections that they received a ‘1’ on, and within minutes was able to tell the teachers why the collection was scored that way,” said Laurie Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Cedar Bluff Elementary School.

“In each case, it was a mistake that the teacher did not catch because they did not take the time to understand what was being asked on the scoring rubric or they did not check their work before submitting the collection.”

Update, Aug. 9, 2018: This story has been updated to include comments from the Tennessee Department of Education.

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.