The ACT and graduation rates indicate we’re on the right track, but the state test says most students are failing. Who is wrong?
The 2016-17 testing year saw thousands of misscored tests and errors in student rosters; problems with test booklets and instructions, along with returned tests through the mail; wide swings in TVAAS scores for teachers and schools; delayed scores and a continued inability for parents and teachers to review the tests; and a wide disparity in test scores compared to ACT and graduation rates.
The General Assembly is reacting to the problems, with House Education committees grilling state officials, and an upcoming Government Operations committee called by House Speaker Beth Harwell to review all aspects of our system as a first step to legislation.
The 2016-2017 tests mark the fourth year in a row where the system has had major problems. For months, members reported test issues, and TEA with local associations have been asking tough questions and demanding accountability for the test-givers. It is clear at the center of all of the state’s problems are the penalties involved in testing.
“We have a test-and-punish system. It is clear we do not use tests to improve instruction or help children. We use tests to penalize teachers, students and schools. That is why the frustrations of parents and teachers are now reaching a boiling point, and it’s time to rethink what we are doing,” said TEA President Barbara Gray.
Gray noted that changes in federal law and the end of Race to the Top mandates provided the state an opportunity to rethink having penalties associated with testing, but for the most part nothing has changed.
“We’ve not met test score deadlines to penalize students and teachers as state law requires, yet we continue to make progress in graduation rates and ACT scores. Isn’t it time to have a frank conversation about test-and-punish, what it’s doing to our schools and children, and whether it helps improve instruction?” Gray asked. “Confidence in the system has eroded to dangerous levels for parents, teachers and students.”
As the state gets ready for a watershed election year, TEA will work to make test-and-punish the issue in education, whether penalties that underscore the system do more harm than good, and if our state tests actually measure what they are supposed to measure.
One clear hit to confidence in state tests is the disparity between TNReady and ACT scores. State tests show the vast majority of Tennessee students are below grade level, yet Tennessee hit record highs statewide on the ACT in all subject areas.
In the House Education Committee, vice-chairman Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) questioned how few students were considered on grade level in Algebra I. “The department says only 15 percent of our students make the grade in this subject, and frankly I don’t believe it. What is this saying to parents when we are trying to attract companies to our communities? It’s not true and its damaging.”
Byrd noted Williamson County as an example, which scored a nationally recognized 25.3 average ACT score, and had 80 percent of its students score a 21 or higher on the math portion, indicating four out of five students were ready for college Algebra as high school juniors. TNReady reported only 46 percent of the district’s students on track or mastering math in all tested grades. Such disparity between the two tests were repeated in districts across the state.
TEA’s chief lobbyist Jim Wrye explained to committee members that kind of disparity has parents, teachers, and taxpayers angry about the testing system. “Nobody in our state believes the majority of students in Williamson County are behind in math. If we don’t believe it for Williamson County, why should we believe it for other systems with lower student proficiency? ACT scores are at an all-time high and on-time graduation rates have never been better, meeting our most important goal of getting more students career and college ready, yet we see headlines with TNReady scores showing we are terribly far behind. Either the ACT or TNReady is wrong about Tennessee students.”
As if we lived in two different states, positive headlines about ACT scores and college readiness were followed just weeks later by stories about Tennessee Schools doing poorly. Both cannot be right, and most Tennesseans are looking at the state as the problem.
“Teachers are asking whether TNReady exams set students up to fail. We want to know if the vast majority of our students are unable to answer questions or demonstrate learning in the state tests,” Gray said. “Teachers do not make assessments to stump students or flunk a majority. That is not good teaching practice. Teachers and parents need to review the tests to get to the bottom of these inconsistencies.”
In spite of the law demanding it, parents and teachers will not be able to see the tests that say their students are behind.
A key legislative initiative for TEA in 2015 was to pass a testing transparency bill, mandating the state publish the majority of TNReady questions, along with examples of scored answers for non-multiple choice questions in writing, math and Language Arts. Having parents, teachers and others review test questions not only allows the public to gauge appropriateness of the assessments, but allows common sense evaluation as to whether the tests follow standards and are age appropriate. Transparency is critical to also improve instruction, the fundamental reason for state assessments.
The state says it will publish only a small portion of test questions and has not said when it will do so. Though the law, standards, and TNReady itself are years into the process, the state has not created enough questions for the test bank and has to rely on copyrighted material from other states and publishers - items that must be kept from the public.
The failure of TNReady tests in third through eighth grade last year has also exacerbated the problem, with few state-owned questions normed through the test taking process. There is no way of knowing whether questions are aligned to standards or grade appropriate.
“Making the tests transparent may be the only way to build confidence in the system and improve teaching practice. I’d also like to see policymakers, lawmakers and others take the same tests our children take to have first-hand experience with what we put our students through, and to see if they are appropriate. For now, we are still left in the dark,” Gray said.
“All Tennesseans want an assessment system that helps improve teaching practices and student learning. They never asked for a system of penalties based on a test they cannot see and which produces outcomes they do not believe. Let’s make this the education issue for all candidates in the 2018 elections.”