A hard day

Testing task force struggles, stumbles as deadline looms

Testing task force facilitator Laura Lefkowits (right) filled several big sheets of paper Monday trying to keep up with the group's deliberations.

The state’s Standards and Assessments Task Force, which has been meeting since July, finally got down to voting on tentative recommendations Monday. The process was messy, and the results were mostly inconclusive.

Straw votes taken over nearly eight hours by the 15-member advisory group generally supported reducing the amount of state-required testing in high school, but the members couldn’t reach agreement on a long list of other issues, including reducing the overall amount of testing, what to do about the new social studies tests and about readiness and literacy evaluations for young students.

And those recommendations the group did agree to “are not set in stone,” said chair Dan Snowberger.

As the daylong session dragged to its end, he said, “We are going to need much more time to come to agreement on recommendations.” Snowberger is superintendent of the Durango School District.

The group had a hard time getting to those preliminary decisions, having to redo votes on several issues and consuming time as members tried to explain the nuances of why they voted the way they did.

The discussion was civil and polite but clearly indicated the philosophical divisions among task force members, particularly between representatives of education reform groups on one side and parent activists and district administrators on the other.

The divisions on the task force likely prefigure disagreements during the 2015 legislative session, where testing is expected to be a top education issue. Some lawmakers say they are waiting to see what the task force proposes. But the task force’s inability so far to speak with one voice could well diminish its influence on Capitol deliberations.

Lawmakers already are chomping at the bit on testing; at least half a dozen legislators reportedly have reserved bill titles on the issue.

The tentative recommendations

The testing task force's work product.
The testing task force’s work product.

The task force did reach preliminary agreement on some testing issues, including:

  • Elimination of all state-required testing in the senior year of high school
  • Replacing the high school science exam with a beefed-up “college entrance exam” (like the ACT, but not necessarily that test)
  • Continue giving state science tests in the fifth and eighth grades
  • Elimination of language arts and math tests in the 11th grade and limiting those tests to the 10th grade
  • A majority of the group leaned toward allowing districts and schools to continue giving language arts and math tests in the ninth and 11th grades as a local option

Some members of the group appeared to support – kind of by default and perhaps temporarily – continued language arts and math tests in third through eighth grades.

In short, the group for now is leaning toward reducing state testing to what’s known as “the federal minimum,” the testing sequence that’s currently required by the federal government.

Members differed on what those straw votes meant.

“From grades three through eight we’ve affirmed the status quo. … We spent today essentially affirming the status quo. In all our discussions we haven’t reduced anything,” said panel member John Creighton, who serves on the St. Vrain school board.

“We have made progress. … Let’s not kick ourselves too hard just yet,” responded Jay Cerney of Cherry Creek Academy charter school in Englewood.

A tortured process

The discussion went slowly for a number of reasons, including:

  • Individual member suggestions for broad policy statements, intended to gain agreement from the group, frequently were greeted with “Yes, but” responses from other members, leading to prolonged discussions.
  • Even after straw votes, members took time to qualify and explain their votes, and several votes had to be repeated.
  • Task force facilitator Laura Lefkowits had to repeatedly call for second votes after members dropped their hands too quickly for her to count them.
  • The group wandered from topic to topic, changing subjects when they couldn’t reach agreement.

Comments by Snowberger, Lefkowits and others through the day illustrate the slow pace of discussion.

  • “So where are we?” – Snowberger at about 11:30 a.m.
  • “Can we vote on this?” – Snowberger shortly after noon
  • “We’ve cut very little in the way of testing so far.” – Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, at about 2 p.m.
  • “So where are we? – Snowberger a short time later
  • “This isn’t much of a recommendation if we’re split in half.” – Lefkowits as 2:30 p.m. neared.
  • “Let’s try to finish one thing before we move to another.” – Lefkowits at about 2:45 p.m.
  • “We need to talk about how long we are going to stay tonight. … We’ve spent a lot of time on things that have not moved.” – Lefkowits as the original adjournment time of 3:30 p.m. approached.
  • “We are a long ways away.” – Snowberger shortly after 3 p.m.

The meeting broke up shortly after 5 p.m.

What’s next

A rump group of the task force was planning to meet Tuesday to see if it could come up with more specific proposals for the full group to discuss later.

Snowberger also is trying to organize small groups of members to discuss issues before the next full meeting on Jan. 9. “If we wait until the 9th to do this again we’re going to be very disappointed,” he said.

The Jan. 9 meeting wasn’t scheduled originally, but the group agreed to it Monday. The panel also is scheduled to meet Jan. 12.

Snowberger’s comments also indicated he’s backing away from the goal of consensus the task force had at the start. “We’re going to have to start putting stakes in the ground, and if 10 of us agree, then report that 10 of us agree.”

Interest groups make their pitches

The task force’s day started with presentations by three interest groups with vocal positions on testing. Task force members split up for simultaneous presentations by the three groups, then discussed the information as a full group.

A parent group known as the Denver Alliance for Public Education presented the results of an online survey it conducted that found strong respondent opposition to the current testing system. The group has complained that a survey done for the task force by the consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates didn’t sample parent opinion.

Representatives of the Colorado Education Association presented a teacher survey that showed respondents split on the Common Core State Standards and skeptical of the value of current assessments.

Members of the Social Studies Policy Group have been following the task force closely and are lobbying to avoid changes in or reduction of the state’s new social studies tests.

Learn more about the groups’ positions in these documents:

You can see the final APA report here and read recent public comments submitted to the task force here.

The task force was created by the 2014 legislature as a political compromise because lawmakers weren’t ready tackle more substantive changes to the testing system. As is typical with such study commissions, the task force membership was designed to include representatives of various education interest groups.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.