VOL. 42 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 27, 2018
Schools’ success too dependent on weak vendor
The “debacle” called TNReady, a standardized test ruling the lives of students, teachers and administrators, is the predictable result of brain drain – not by students but by Tennessee’s leaders.
While some legislators blame the Tennessee Education Association for everything, the General Assembly finds itself wringing collective hands – for a third time – over the state’s ultimate testing tool.
“We have failed, failed, failed in this testing debacle,” says state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster Republican.
Across Tennessee, students in grades 3-12 hit a wall when they tried to log in to take the TNReady test, some unable to get into the system and others watching their work disappear into cyberspace, first because of a vendor screw-up and second because of a hacker. So much for two No. 2 pencils.
For one of the few times in recent history, teachers can’t be faulted.
The Legislature responded by passing legislation under which local systems won’t be able to base employment or pay decisions for teachers on data from the statewide testing.
Lawmakers also offered local school boards the option of counting the tests from zero to 15 percent on students’ final grades for the semester and gave school systems a year off from a letter grade, in addition to deciding not to count this year’s tests toward identifying schools as a “priority school” or assigning them to the Achievement School District.
Likewise, the Legislature will require the test provider to reimburse local school systems for “misadministration” affecting scoring and put it in the position of a potential breach of contract.
Go back a few years, though, and the state Legislature took square aim at everything related to teachers, including the teachers’ union and collective bargaining, and decided to do its best to make their lives miserable, mainly by tying their livelihoods to the results of end-of-year tests.
“Accountability!” they cried. No other profession in the nation is allowed to go unchecked without being held responsible for mediocrity – except maybe for legislatures and Congress.
Thus, lawmakers ordered a final standardized test to see whether students can spell “cat” without being spotted the “c” and the “t.” And, they decided, not only are we going to see how much students are improving, we’re going to judge every school by how well its students do on the test.
And, by God, if those teachers don’t make sure their kids excel on that test, we’re going to get rid of them.
In addition, they created the Achievement School District to take over schools with bad test scores and handed over a good number of those to charter operators, though they aren’t doing much – if any – better than their predecessors with the schools in the bottom 5 percent.
The result is test prep, pizza parties, nervous nellies and now another testing failure, coming on the heels of warnings from state legislators to Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen: Fix this problem or else.
Yet, Michigan-based Questar, the vendor being paid $30 million annually, didn’t fix it, and here we go again, two years after another vendor couldn’t get the online test off the ground.
On the hot seat
Lawmakers jousted with McQueen during a House committee hearing on the test foul-up, with Democratic Minority Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart calling for her resignation and Rep. G.A. Hardaway saying he couldn’t trust any investigation into the hacking without TBI leading the case, instead of Questar.
McQueen opened the hearing by apologizing and saying the department was “completely devastated,” then defended herself later, saying she wouldn’t resign and pointing toward several efforts to ensure the tests would work as well as hundreds of successful rounds of testing. She said switching to pen-and-paper tests would put too much burden on the state and school systems.
However, Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, told McQueen the breakdown “makes us look like fools as legislators,” since Questar assured lawmakers during a 2017 hearing this type of bumble wouldn’t happen.
Rep. Ron Lollar, a Bartlett Republican, pointed out people have lost “faith” in the system and noted McQueen “blocked good legislation” designed to “put some confidence in it.” He also contended Questar should be penalized.
It wouldn’t be surprising if legislators took more steps this week allowing school systems the option of going to pencil-and-paper tests, though many lawmakers think that’s a step backwards.
An odd occasion
If nothing else, this disaster created some semblance of bipartisanship in the Legislature, with House members saying they’d never seen so many from both sides of the aisle agree.
Some lawmakers who rarely speak except on social issues made their voices heard.
For instance, Rep. Weaver pointed out students put their “heart and soul” into the testing, only to type their answers and essays into the computer and watch as they went “bye-bye.”
“I just think it’s insanity, and this is not working at all,” added Weaver. “We want our money back.”
Department of Education lawyers are looking into it, McQueen explained. But it took a lot of hemming and hawing for McQueen to figure out she needed to do more than ask Questar to bring in a third party to investigation. Finally, she called District Attorney Glenn Funk to ask him to request a TBI investigation.
Unfortunately, she also seemed more interested in making excuses for the vendor, pointing toward problems with the IRS website around Tax Day. Likewise, Rep. Sabi Kumar, a Springfield Republican, said students need to learn how to cope with adversity in an age of technology.
No doubt, we all have to deal with setbacks. But that’s easy for Kumar to say when he’s not the one whose future is at stake – or maybe it should be since he’s up for re-election.
But while Kumar cast this aside as a minor nuisance, other legislators were clearly irritated.
Possibly the most interesting comments during this scorching session came from Republican Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia, who won election in 2010 on a red wave and won’t be running again in 2018.
Known more for weird comments about rape and incest not being verifiable as part of the abortion debate and calling for creation of the NAAWP (National Association for Advancement of Western Peoples), Butt is not exactly a House power broker and certainly isn’t known for eloquence during floor debate. In fact, she rarely speaks.
In pouncing on McQueen, though, Butt questioned whether this year’s test results could be used and noted frustrated students are telling teachers, “I’m done with this.”
“We have created a culture of testing instead of a culture of teaching,” she added.
It’s too bad Butt is leaving the Legislature. Her words – at least in this case – cut to the heart of the matter.
When the entire school year boils down to one test – affecting the grades and futures of students, teachers, administrators and schools – this is what you get. One mistake and the whole year is jacked up.
So, while state leaders constantly claim better student test scores are putting Tennessee in the middle of the national pack, as well as providing more accountability for teachers and administrators, they’re fooling themselves into thinking this is the best system for Tennessee.
What they’ve done in their zeal to push Tennessee over the top is push it over the edge by taking enthusiasm out of teaching and the fundamentals out of education, along with the opportunity for young people to expand their minds.
As a result, students are forced to meet so-called higher standards without building their skills. Teachers are snared in the trap of high test scores instead of teaching students how to think, which should be the ultimate goal.
We can thank the governor and Tennessee General Assembly for this mess. Now get ready to sharpen those two No. 2 pencils.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.