With TEA support, legislators move quickly to safeguard students, teachers from TNReady failures
The General Assembly passed strong hold-harmless legislation for test data as TEA and parents across the state pushed for relief as TNReady continued to experience problems for another year.
“The legislature made sure students, teachers and schools were protected against the failures of TNReady,” said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye. “They heard from their districts and they saw the problems, and in the waning days of the session took decisive action.”
In an extraordinary fight on Thursday, April 18, the House held the state budget hostage to demand concessions on the hold harmless effort. House and Senate leaders worked out an amendment, which was attached to an unrelated piece of legislation passing the needed safeguards.
The measure prohibits the use of TNReady data in all high-stakes employment decisions for Tennessee educators, including compensation and tenure. It also allows school boards to eliminate TNReady data from student grades, prevents the use of data in the flawed school grading system, and prevents new schools from being added to the priority list, while allowing others to come off if data if it is helpful.
“This measure nullifies any bad outcomes from data this year for those who have had to suffer through the problems,” Wrye said. “It may be up to the next governor and legislature to decide what we do about testing moving forward. This will be an issue at the ballot box in the August primaries and the November general election.”
Technical difficulties this year led to thousands of students being unable to access or complete TNReady online tests in the first two days of the testing window, April 16 and 17.
This is the third year of problems that have plagued the state assessment, leading some lawmakers to question whether or not to continue with TNReady. The topic is expected to be addressed before the legislature adjourns.
“We need to improve confidence in the state assessment, and the best way to do that is listen to the teachers, administrators and parents who have had to endure the problems and deal with the worry,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell. Harwell took the lead as TNReady broke down.
The Speaker called a joint House committee of Education and Government Operations to demand answers from the department and the test vendor, Questar. The April 18 hearing was not encouraging for most representatives on the expanded panel.
“The faith in the system is not there,” said Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett).
“I feel like we don’t offer very many excuses for teachers,” said Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), who carried a hold-harmless amendment for test results. “But there are plenty of excuses for this side.”
TEA outlined to lawmakers that the test failures make use in evaluations and student grades impossible. Delays, lost data, stops mid-exam, and the emotional and morale issues brought on by the breakdown in the system create different testing conditions for students—an un-level playing field that invalidates scores.
The thousands of exams that went offline in the middle of testing, forcing students to stop and resume either hours or even days later, were a focus of the committee.
Rep. Roger Kane (R-Knoxville) noted that a teacher who let students leave during a proctored exam and then return later to complete it would be in breach of state test rules—with possible suspension or firing as a result—because students could look up answers or other information during the break.
“Yet that is exactly what happened to students who had to stop because of the system failure,” Kane said.
State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen initially denied this occurred, but was contradicted by specifics given to lawmakers by teachers and administrators from across the state, and in testimony from the director of Lakeland schools, Ted Horrell.
For now, testing will continue, despite technical issues still being reported for both online and paper exams. There are ongoing concerns about student morale as well, but the state told lawmakers that federal law requires the test goes forward.
“We had a hard fight with the administration and department on this, as well as all the pro-testing groups,” Wrye said. “There was a lot of denial from the state about the depth of the problems, and how it undermines public confidence and overall validity of the data. We won because at the end of the day lawmakers voted their district, and TEA provides the political support from the membership.”
A number of lawmakers have made clear they still have unresolved concerns with TNReady, and there are still ways to continue the discussion. With several days left in the session, it is sure the fight over testing is not over.