By Crystal Burns
Governor Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen wrapped up their 6-stop TNReady Listening Tour in Gibson County last week.
Dyer Junior High School hosted the roundtable discussion, the first phase of Haslam’s engagement process to improve the state assessment delivery. Wayne Miller, former school superintendent in Lenoir City and former executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, served as lead consultant. Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) also attended.
Haslam began with an apology for issues that resulted in the state legislature passing a bill to hold students and teachers harmless for their 2017-18 test results. Districts across the state reported problems that included students being unable to submit their online tests or network issues at the state level preventing students from finishing the assessments in the allotted time.
McQueen reiterated Haslam’s apology.
Conversation focused on five guiding questions:
- As an educator, what have been the greatest challenges you have experienced with TNReady delivery and administration?
- What value does TNReady and an aligned assessment have to you as an educator and to your students?
- As we prepare for testing this school year, what solutions would you suggest to mitigate issues with test delivery?
- As we prepare to choose our next assessment partner for 2019-20 and beyond, what should be prioritized when choosing that partner?
- What do you want the next administration to know and be thinking about as it relates to statewide assessment administration and delivery?
School leaders from across rural West Tennessee participated in the discussion. In addition to playing host, the Gibson County Special School District (GCSSD) sent Director of Schools Eddie Pruett, Dyer principal Kevin Turner, Rutherford teacher Samantha Litton and South Gibson Co. High School teacher Denice Walton. The Trenton and Milan Special School Districts were also invited. Other participants represented Weakley Co., Dyersburg, Bruceton-Hollow Rock, Crockett Co. and McKenzie.
Educators detailed what some teachers described as a “nightmare” situation during the Spring 2018 testing window. One Bruceton-Hollow Rock teacher said, “I felt like my world fell apart. I was so anxious. It destroyed our testing environment that day.”
A Weakley Co. testing coordinator said teachers reported seeing their students give up.
“They really stopped trying,” she said.
Haslam admitted that the state would need to get its online testing process right for a couple of years to rebuild students’ confidence in TNReady. He said he wants to provide the next governor with solutions to the problems, especially in the new Request For Proposal (RFP) the state would use to find its next testing vendor. Questar has the current contract and is the second company in the last two years the state has used for its online testing needs.
“It’s really important that we do as much as we can to hand over a solutions-oriented package,” Haslam said. “I really do feel a responsibility to take care of as much as I can with the new RFP [for 2019-20].”
Several educators suggested improving the test for students with disabilities and/or Individual Education Plans (IEPs). A Dyersburg English teacher said those students in particular should be able to scan the questions before reading the text. South Gibson County’s Walton said the online test doesn’t reflect the instruction teachers give concerning reading the text such as highlighting important words or passages, and TNReady also goes against the ACT strategies students use.
McQueen had good news. She said the state is already working with Questar to calculate the costs of providing reading text and questions on paper.
Scheduling was another popular topic. Mark Maddox of Weakley Co. suggested the Dept. of Education put people “in the field” for its Oct. 23 stress test, which McQueen said would be large scale with the help of districts across the state flooding the online platform to find any problems.
“Have people in the buildings to see the challenges principals have with scheduling,” he said.
Peabody’s Allen said some tests have too many subparts that add to the length of the assessments, taxing students and making scheduling more difficult. Others said the state’s 3-week testing window creates “a nightmare.”
McQueen said districts would have the option of adding a fourth week.
After the roundtable, McQueen said many of the concerns discussed in Gibson Co. echoed what she and the governor heard across the state. She said scheduling challenges were more prominent in rural areas where 1:1 initiatives (each student has a laptop, tablet, etc.) are less common.
McQueen said the listening tour had been positive, with leaders hearing some specific suggestions for improvements.
“The opportunity to hear directly from teachers has been very valuable,” she said.
Haslam ended the discussion with a promise that the tour wasn’t a “dog and pony show.”
“We really are trying to make this better,” he said.
“I was happy that the governor and Department of Education realized that this has been an issue for too many years and are trying to listen to the people in the field to help solve the problem,” Pruett said. “I am hopeful that they take that feedback and use it to make the testing system better for our students and teachers.”
“It was refreshing to participate and discuss shared concerns about testing; however, it was even more refreshing to see that others are listening and genuinely want to hear our ideas about how the process can be improved,” Bibb said. “We look forward to seeing some of our ideas come to fruition and the entire process be improved.”
“I was particularly glad to learn from the commissioner that the high school TNReady tests would have fewer subparts next spring,” Allen said. “The large amount of time that is required to administer these state tests is a big concern. Currently the math and history tests each have three independent subparts and English has four. Fewer subparts should allow for more ease in the scheduling and logistics of administering the tests as well as help with students’ testing stamina.”
“The conversations around improving the delivery of state assessments, the importance of strong academic and assessment alignment, and the overall credibility of the test administration were significant, but what was just as important to me was the right people were around the table discussing the concerns,” Elliott said. “This is a good step in the appropriate direction and I’m hopeful that the next administration will continue to focus on these concerns. All the districts in West Tennessee work very hard to provide academic achievement for their students, therefore, it is only fair to provide districts with a reliable assessment.”