Tennessee’s decision to cancel standardized testing this year amid sweeping snafus sent shockwaves across the state’s education system this spring.
But the long-term consequences could be more significant — and wide-reaching.
As the state finalizes a contract with a new testing company to replace the one it fired this spring, Tennessee’s biggest challenge now might be to regain the trust of educators, students and parents. Its new measuring stick for math and English, called TNReady, had been positioned as the centerpiece of a policy agenda that would make Tennessee a leader in student achievement after decades of lagging.
“As an educator, I’ve lost confidence in the ability of Tennessee to successfully execute a test on the state level,” said seventh-grade social studies teacher Mitch Orr, who works at STEM Prep Academy in Nashville.
Outside of the state, observers who once saw promise in Tennessee’s ambitious education agenda now see a trail of red flags along the road to improve student achievement.
“The shine is off the apple when it comes to Tennessee education reform,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute and a proponent of much of the state’s education improvement agenda. “A lot of us watching this from afar are nervous for Tennessee.”
State education officials acknowledge the doubt from onlookers, even as they insist that Tennessee’s vaunted accountability system can recover from the setbacks.
“We’re having to certainly build that trust back, not only with educators but with the general public,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.
One major challenge is that the absence of test scores complicates the federal requirement for the state to explain how different groups of students are doing. That requirement, in place since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, is one of the holdovers in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which passed last fall.
“It’s a problem,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King said in May when asked how Tennessee’s test cancellation could impact the tracking of achievement gaps and education equities, a key purpose of its accountability system. He said the state would have to dig into its data to find other ways to assess whether all students are improving, or just some groups of them.
Tennessee State Board of Education members have flagged this year’s lack of data as a serious problem — albeit one for which they don’t know the solution. “That data tells us something very important and real,” says Sara Heyburn, the board’s executive director. “It helps us understand where our achievement gaps are. … Equity really rests on having that data.”
Test scores are also at the heart of the state’s school turnaround efforts. The state-run Achievement School District uses them to decide which schools to shutter and reopen as charter schools, and urban districts use them to decide which schools should receive extra resources as part of their “innovation zones.” These school improvement efforts have been closely watched, and in some cases, replicated in other states.
In April, the Achievement School District announced it will not take over more schools in 2017-18 because of the testing travails. And since decisions about state intervention are based on three years of data, it’s unclear how such decisions will be made in 2018 and 2019, either.
“The [testing] issues compromised the quality of that data,” said Tim Fields, a national expert on school turnaround work with the think tank Public Impact. “That’s a challenge in many respects.”
Then in May, the State Board of Education eliminated the accountability provisions it had just passed last year. That’s because this year’s test scores will not be available to evaluate a large swath of teachers or measure achievement gaps at most elementary and middle schools.
Instead, the state is asking districts to fulfill its mandate to evaluate teachers using student performance by counting last year’s test score growth scores for more, and by selecting an available option for student performance from a preset menu.
In the absence of school-wide test scores, many elementary and middle school teachers are being rated based in part on their district’s high school data, such as graduation rates — an important metric but one that does not try to isolate their impact.
“While we do affect graduation rates as an elementary school, I definitely think our test scores give a truer picture,” said Dana Lester, an elementary school librarian in Rutherford County, who like many of her colleagues opted to use graduation rates in her evaluation. “But we really didn’t have a choice.”
Department officials, while disappointed and apologetic about the testing problems, insist that the state’s accountability system is flexible enough to absorb this year’s setbacks.
“It is not being upended,” McQueen said. “We have so many things that can still provide us information.” She cited a range of items that the state measures, including high school test scores and absenteeism rates, as possible metrics for assessing schools this year.
“[The data] will just look different than what we’ve been able to provide for the last few years,” she said.
Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray says that, for educators, the question now is how and if the state will reevaluate the role of standardized tests as a result of this year’s setbacks. That answer might come soon as the state begins conversations about complying with the new federal education law ESSA, which requires an array of data besides test scores to be used for accountability purposes. Last year, the state added more measures beyond testing to its district accountability system, signaling a slight shift in the importance of testing. Petrilli, of the Fordham Institute, predicts that states will move away from using test scores to evaluate teachers.
While frustrated as a teacher, Mitch Orr views Tennessee’s shakeup in accountability as a chance to make improvements.
“There is a phenomenal opportunity that the state has to take this, go back to the beginning, and emerge as a leader in education,” he said.
In the meantime, Tennessee still has a system based entirely on end-of-year test data that won’t work until a test is entirely rolled out.
“People know when you’re shifting assessments, you’re going to have to wait a year to see growth — so now to put that off more, it’s just another year until you have that information at scale,” said Sonja Santelises, outgoing vice president at the Washington-based think tank Education Trust and incoming superintendent of Baltimore City Schools, who has worked closely with Tennessee educators.
“It means one more year of just kind of paddling. You lose momentum.”