budget lines

$1.3 billion budget request targets teacher training and pre-K

Nearly a quarter of a $1.3 billion request for extra funds by the Board of Regents is targeted toward training teachers, communicating with parents and adding more preschool seats.

The targeted funds, which total $300 million, are four times more than what the Regents asked for last year and represent a significantly larger share of the budget request. Officials said the proposal, which includes $125 million for professional development for teachers, was in part an acknowledgement of new challenges faced due to Common Core standards and teacher evaluations.

Regent James Tallon, chair of the state aid committee, called the funding “a discrete commitment to professional development” to address concerns that teachers and schools weren’t being supported enough to effectively implement statewide policies.

The entire package of budget priorities deals primarily with how increased state aid should be spent. It represents a 4.7 percent increase over last year’s $20.9 billion total.

The proposals comes just over a month before Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposes his 2014-15 executive budget and officially kicks off negotiation in the legislature.

Some of that back and forth will center around funding Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s plan to add 50,000 full-day prekindergarten seats in New York City, which he has estimated will cost $530 million annually. De Blasio wants the state to let him to tax wealthy city residents to pay for the expansion, but the plan has received reluctant support so far.

The Regents proposal asks for $125 million for pre-K, but the funding would be allocated based on need. Tallon said the funding could go toward funding seats in New York City, but that officials would like to see more pre-K seats added throughout the state

“There’s wonderful attention being paid to this in New York City, [but] it’s a statewide issue,” Tallon said. “All the kids in the state deserve this attention.”

The Regents proposed another $125 million to be spent on professional development and the remaining $50 million would be spent on technology upgrades and more textbooks.

The need for more time and resources for professional development has been a theme for months amid ongoing concerns that schools aren’t adequately equipped to properly shift instructional practices to align to new learning standards or meet teaching standards for evaluation.

According to the Regents’ request, the funding could be used to pay for substitutes while teachers are taking their own classes, or used to pay them overtime for staying at work longer as part of the training.

While the state legislature rarely takes up the Regents’ budget priority package in full, the professional development piece has bipartisan support. Republican State Sen. John Flanagan last week also called for extra professional development funding.

Districts already received hundreds of millions of dollars in professional development support through federal funds called Title 2A grants. New York City received nearly $100 million in the grants this year, which are disbursed to districts with large populations of high-need students.

But officials said those funds aren’t used as effectively as they could be.

“This notion of a blank check that Title 2A has been for some years, that era’s got to go,” said Assistant Commissioner Ken Slentz, who added that the state’s professional development funding “will have to have strings attached.”

The Regents budget overall budget proposal was criticized by advocates who want the state legislature to show a greater commitment to restoring funds that were cut during years of the Great Recession.

“Investing only $1.3 billion will not be enough to reverse the devastating classroom cuts that students have absorbed in recent years much less provide what is needed to close the gap in opportunity between rich and poor school districts,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.

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. (Editor’s note: After this story’s initial publication, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen revealed what the analysis found. Here’s that story.)

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not as much 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.