TNReady Testimony

Few answers as state education officials testify about testing breakdown

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennessee Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns confers with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen on Wednesday before appearing before a state Senate hearing about TNReady.

Lawmakers who tried to shed light on the murky reasons for Tennessee’s botched transition to online testing generated more questions than answers on Wednesday.

Members of the Senate education and government operations committees pressed State Department of Education officials on what went wrong with the state’s brand new testing system, and why they had been confident in a testing company that had never before undertaken a project of that scale.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said her department had done everything it could to prepare for testing, including administering millions of student practice tests and taking “painstaking efforts” to fix bugs reported by students and teachers.

But when testing began on Feb. 8, the testing system crashed while thousands of students were mid-test. Education officials quickly blamed Measurement Inc, the North Carolina vendor hired to develop the test, but have not explained what caused the system to fail.

“Who had oversight over this?” asked Sen. Mike Bell. “Were we just trusting the vendor to get it done?”

(While the hearing was underway, Gov. Bill Haslam announced in an email that test scores would not factor into teachers’ ratings this year because of the testing snafus.)

Department officials said they worked closely with Measurement Inc. throughout the development process, alerting its representatives of technological problems they saw and helping the company test how many students could log on to its system without crashing.

But the problem that crippled servers on Day One of the testing was not due to overload or any bug they’d seen before, said Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer for the department.

“The system was not under tremendous load when it fell over,” Lloyd said. “Unfortunately, what we saw wasn’t a consequence of load. The system was running at about 15 percent of its expected load. What we saw were a combination of factors that could have been avoided, and that is probably the saddest aspect of this.

“We didn’t see a server blow up; we didn’t see insufficient money spent on server capacity; we didn’t see problems with broadband in our schools; we didn’t see all the things you would’ve thought would have been the problem,” Lloyd continued. “What we saw were some bad choices … that really could have been avoided.”

"What we saw were bad choices ... that really could have been avoided."Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer

Lloyd did not specific what those choices were. But he signaled that he did not believe anyone at the state department had made them. “That talks really to the internal processes of another organization that we really don’t have control over,” he said.

Measurement Inc. won the contract with the state in 2014 after receiving the highest technical score from an anonymous group of evaluators, and offering to create the test for the lowest cost — about $20 million less than the next lowest offer.

The company had never taken on a statewide online assessment contract before. But Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of policy, said the State Department of Education had no reason to doubt that the company was up for the job.

“We went through a very extensive (selection) process … and it was really an unprecedented process,”  Smith said. “We had leaders from local districts on the content side and the technical side. … At the time, we felt very positive about the selection.”

McQueen, who became commissioner months after the contract was signed, suggested during the hearing that the department’s confidence had been quickly shaken — and then restored.

“There was a bit of a concern there early on about the capacity for them to understand what the issues were and for them to fix them quickly,” she told senators.

So the state worked with Measurement Inc. to do several “stress tests,” ensuring that the company’s servers would not be overwhelmed by the high volume of traffic when students began testing. They also worked to fix bugs that caused the program to freeze during practice tests.

“We were as ready as we could be for Monday, Feb. 8,” McQueen said.

That is little consolation for students and school personnel who were flummoxed when exams started last week. Now, schools that prepared to take the test in early February are waiting for the arrival of paper tests that have yet to be printed — which are actually more expensive for the state to administer. Smith said officials are working to ensure that the state won’t be left with a larger-than-anticipated bill.

In the meantime, students and teachers alike are confused, said Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis. He said his fifth-grade son had brought up concerns about TNReady and the state’s response at the dinner table.

“This is the first time my son has taken an interest with what’s going on the state level because he’s prepared, and his classmates have prepared, with a great deal of effort, for this test. So he wonders what’s going on, and he brings that to the dinner table,” Harris said.

“Assure your son, he will take TNReady,” McQueen said. “He will get the paper version of the test, and he will be taking it.”

“Can you tell him when?” Harris countered.

Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns said officials hope that Shelby County students will take the test in mid-March before spring break — a month after they originally planned.

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at

bias in the classroom

‘Disciplinarians first and teachers second’: black male teachers say they face an extra burden

PHOTO: The Laradon School
A teacher and a student at The Laradon School in Denver work together with tactile teaching tools.

As a first-year teacher, Pierce Bond took on a remarkable responsibility: helping other teachers by disciplining or counseling misbehaving students.

That left him to make tough choices, like whether to disrupt his own class mid-lesson to handle problems in the school’s detention room. “Sometimes you have to make that decision,” he told an interviewer. “Do I stop whatever I’m doing now to go deal with this situation?”

The burden was placed on him because he is one of small share of black men in the teaching profession, posits a study published this month in The Urban Review, a peer-reviewed journal. The study relies on interview 27 black male teachers in Boston’s public schools — including Bond, who like others, was identified by a pseudonym — and found several experiences like his.

“Participants perceived that their peers and school administrators positioned them to serve primarily as disciplinarians first and teachers second,” write authors Travis Bristol of Boston University and Marcelle Mentor of the College of New Rochelle.

The paper acknowledges that interviewees were a small, non-random sample of teachers in one district, and their results might not apply elsewhere. But other researchers and policymakers, including former Secretary of Education John King, have acknowledged the phenomenon, which may contribute to schools’ difficulties recruiting and retaining teachers of color.

“Children of color and white children need to see different types of people standing in front of them and teaching them,” said Bristol. “After we recruit [teachers of color], we have to be mindful about how they are positioned in their building and draw on the things they are doing that are successful.”

In the study, which draws from Bristol’s dissertation on the experiences of black male teachers, a number of them described a similar experience: colleagues assuming that they were better able to deal with perceived behavioral issues, particularly among black boys.

One veteran teacher, Adebayo Adjayi, described how older students were regularly sent into his early elementary classroom, making his regular teaching role significantly more difficult.

“Adjayi recognized that his classroom became the school’s disciplinary room, a holding area, and he had become the school disciplinarian,” the researchers write. “Without considering the type of environment that would most support [the school’s] students who were deemed misbehaving, the fifth graders were placed in the same classroom as the prekindergartners.”

Christopher Brooks, a high school teacher, explained how seemingly small favors for colleagues began to add up. “He first said yes to one teacher who asked him, ‘Can you just talk to so-and-so because he’s not giving up his phone?’ and then to another colleague who asked, ‘Can I leave Shawn in here? He can’t seem to sit still.’ By that time, it had become the unspoken norm that Brooks would attend to his colleagues’ misbehaving students,” the study says.

Brooks says this played a role in how he arranged his day, since he knew he needed to be prepared to receive additional students some periods or solve a problem during lunch.

Other teachers told the researchers the the extra responsibilities don’t bother them.

“I understand it because I know how to speak the kids’ language,” said Okonkwo Sutton, a first-year charter school teacher. “I’ve had a very similar childhood and background as many of them.”  

Some of those interviewed questioned the assumptions behind the idea that they should serve as disciplinarians. Peter Baldwin, a novice teacher, described how a colleague suggested he would be able to help one struggling student by talking “man to man.”

“I don’t think he was just gonna respond to me better than others because I’m me, or because I’m a male or because I’m black,” Baldwin said. “I think because I sort of invested time … we’ve built a relationship.”

There’s little if any research on how this additional work or stress affects black male teachers’ job satisfaction, retention, or performance. But there is evidence that teachers of color leave the classroom at a higher rate and are less satisfied with their jobs than white teachers.

At a national level, the numbers are striking: only 2 percent of teachers are black men. Meanwhile, research has repeatedly linked black teachers to better outcomes — test scores, high school graduation rates, behavior — for black students, and that’s led to national pushes to diversify the predominantly white teaching profession, as well as local programs like NYC Men Teach.

The study emphasizes that the findings don’t apply to all black male teachers, and doesn’t try to quantify the experience of being treated as disciplinarians. But the authors suggest that treating black male teachers that way could be unfair to them, their colleagues, and their students.

“School administrators should work to develop more expansive roles for black male teachers and become more cognizant of how black male teachers are implicitly and explicitly positioned in their schools,” the paper says. “Equally important, administrators should work to develop the capacity of all teachers to support and engage all students.”