Testing debacle wags the dog in Tennessee schools

Johnson City Press • May 11, 2018 at 8:15 AM

Rigor is essential in education. Accountability is key. So is common sense.

For more than a quarter century, Tennesseans have watched the state’s Department of Education fumble around with standardized testing and school accountability measurements. The last four years have been especially comical, leaving teachers and parents without a consistent understanding of achievement while squandering valuable learning time for students.

Johnson City Board of Education members are fed up with the mess, and parents should be, too.

Together, testing and accountability represent the most politically volatile concern in American education, largely between politicians and pundits who view the nation’s public schools as faltering and loyalists who fight to preserve them. While knowing where our kids stand and how well our schools perform are musts, legitimate complaints consistently have emerged about how increased emphasis on test scores has limited teachers’ abilities to tap into students’ cognitive potential in favor or rote tasks. They wind up teaching for the test, not the child.

Anyone of a certain age who used a No. 2 pencil to fill in those little circles on Scantron pages should remember receiving achievement scores at the end of the school year. They were indexed against national and state norms, indicating how a student compared to peers. That was easy enough to understand.

But results are only as good as the standards behind the tests. A decade ago, critics piled on Tennessee for a lack of rigor in its curricula and assessments in the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, a testing system in place since 1989. Schools often were doing fine against the state’s own standards, but not so much against national results. Tennessee kids were way behind their peers, and a much-needed makeover began to more closely align state tests with national benchmarks.

Of course politics got in the way, as the cultural backlash against the Common Core curriculum just confused the issue, and in 2014, the Legislature backed out of a test developed through a coalition of 18 states, nullifying the preparations of teachers and pupils.

So the state leapt into the ironically named TNReady, a new set of tests replacing the TCAP, in 2015. TNReady has been a disaster from the word go. The first year, the state canceled the online tests altogether for grades 3-8 and fired the original vendor, which failed to integrate the test online.

Last fall, the problems mounted as the Department of Education announced a new vendor had incorrectly scored about 9,400 TNReady assessments, affecting 70 schools in 33 districts. This year, that same vendor was the victim of what state officials described as a deliberate cyberattack, and connectivity issues slowed the whole system, thrusting everything into question yet again. Lawmakers rightfully put the Education Department and Commissioner Candice McQueen in the hot seat again this year — some have called for her resignation — and took steps to prevent scores from being used against students and teachers.

In Monday’s Board of Education meeting, Johnson City’s school testing supervisor, Roger Walk, described the district’s TNReady experience as a comedy of errors with many disruptions and a great loss of instruction time over the course of the school year.

The school board stopped short of voting no confidence in McQueen and her department but took hold of board member Kathy Hall’s suggestion that the district develop its own ideal assessments and share them with the state.

How sad is it that our local schools would need to do the state’s job?

Tennessee deserves a resounding “F” for TNReady. Schools should be able to test their pupils without hampering instruction and limiting the scope of education, and both parents and teachers should be able to have confidence in the scores. Surely, other states have a model Tennessee can apply.

Anyone have a No. 2 pencil?