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.

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.

Teacher Pay

‘Our teachers have waited long enough’: Educators say Indiana needs to act now on teacher pay

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.

Educators and advocates are pushing state leaders to take action this year to raise teacher compensation — not to wait for additional research, as Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed last week.

“Our teachers have waited long enough,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t take a two-year study to discover what we already know: teachers need to be valued, respected, and paid as professionals.”

Holcomb’s proposal last week to study raises in the upcoming budget-writing session and make bigger steps in 2021 didn’t sit well with some, since lawmakers and advocates spent the fall talking up the need to make teacher salaries competitive with other states. But given the state’s tight budget situation, Holcomb suggested studying the impact of raises for at least a year, as well as looking at how much money would be needed and how districts would be expected to get the money to teachers.

Read: Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

The proposal drew quick criticism. Education leaders and advocacy groups took to Twitter to express their hopes that Holcomb and lawmakers would find ways to address teacher salaries this year as well as into the future.

“IN must respond now,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick tweeted Friday morning, remarking that too many teachers across the state are leaving the profession because pay is too low. “Kids deserve & depend upon excellent teachers.”

“We can’t wait to act because Hoosier children are counting on all us to come together to ensure our schools can attract and retain the best teachers,” Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said in a blog post titled “The time to act on teacher pay is now.

ISTA’s 2019 legislative agenda, released Monday, will continue pushing for lawmakers and state leaders to find creative solutions to raise teacher pay and make Indiana competitive with other states.

And ISTA says they might have voters on their side. A recent ISTA poll of more than 600 Hoosiers, conducted by Emma White Research, shows that funding for education is a priority across the state, with more than 86 percent of those sampled supporting sending more money to public schools. About 72 percent of people polled believe educators are underpaid.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough money in the budget to spend on across-the-board raises after other funding obligations are met, such as funding needed by the Department of Child Services to deal with effects of the state’s opioid crisis. Senate Democrats have called for $81 million a year to ensure 5 percent raises for teachers and counselors over the next two years. Republicans have strong majorities in both chambers.

Neither ISTA, lawmakers, Holcomb nor other education groups have released specific plans for either how much they’d like to see set aside for teachers or strategies for how a pay increase could feasibly be carried out. However, the effort has brought together some unlikely allies — the union, a vocal advocate for traditional public schools, rarely aligns its education policy with groups like Stand and Teach Plus Indiana that have favored increased school-choice options, such as charter schools.

With limited dollars to go around, the focus will have to also be on how to make existing education dollars go farther, Meredith said. She, along with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last month, pointed to the need to curtail spending on administration, which, they argue, could free up money for other expenses such as teacher compensation.

Some have also pointed to the state’s recent budget surplus and reserves as evidence that Indiana could spend more on education if there was political will to do so.

“The surplus has come on the backs of educators and their students,” Meredith said. “Elected leaders must do more. They must do more to declare teacher pay a priority in this session, and they must take action.”

ISTA is also hoping lawmakers will act to:

  • Restore collective bargaining rights so educators can negotiate work hours and class size, as well as salaries and benefits.
  • Remove teacher evaluation results from decisions about salary until the state’s new ILEARN test has been in place for a few years.
  • Invest in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers
  • Strengthen regulations for charter and virtual charter schools, including putting a moratorium on new virtual schools until those safeguards can be enacted.
  • Study districts that have focused on how to best teach students who have experienced trauma.

Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect that Stand for Children Indiana doesn’t take a position in regards to private school vouchers.