Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 17, 2018

View from the Hill: TNReady testing the patience of all concerned

If Clint Eastwood were to make to a sequel of “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver could play Granny Hawkins because of her penchant for blunt language.

On the run from Union troops after refusing to surrender early in the tale, the vengeful Wales runs into Granny Hawkins, who tells him she hears the feds are going to “heel and hide” him to a barn door.

“I say that big talk’s worth doodly-squat,” the toothless Granny Hawkins says, smoking a pipe and sitting in a rocking chair before giving him directions for using a poultice to treat short-lived sidekick Jamie, who was hit with a bullet while escaping the Union massacre of Rebel fighters.

Weaver, a Republican from rural Lancaster in Smith County, gives the same assessment of the Tennessee Department of Education during a hearing on TNReady testing, much maligned for online failures when thousands of students tried to take their ultimate test last spring.

“So right now my morale with you guys is zip, nada, nothing, so that’s all I’ve got to say. I just don’t have any confidence in what you’re bringing here with these numbers and these slides, because basically right now they don’t mean doodly-squat,” Weaver says.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary allows doodly-squat and diddly-squat to be used interchangeably, though the latter might be preferred in modern vernacular. It also gives the spelling, doodley-squat. But contrary to what some people might think, doodly-squat, in whatever version you might prefer, means “the least amount” or “anything at all.”

In other words, Weaver didn’t think much of the education department’s presentation.

Neither did the rest of the joint House Education Committee. Republican Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville accused the presenters of “insulting” the committee’s intelligence. And Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Memphis Democrat, says she wrote in her notes “passing the buck.”

“There have been so many failures in the implementation of TNReady that either they need to start all over again or discontinue this. We’ve continued to use our kids as guinea pigs and, in the long run, they don’t get any better because of the fallacies either in the way the test is implemented or in the design of the test or all of those variables which negatively impact the teachers’ gradings or the ratings of the schools,” Turner says.

Readers who keep up with state politics might remember the education department’s initial response when students’ tests started vanishing was that they’d been hit by a cyberattack. After a good deal of soul-searching, they decided against hackers, Russian or otherwise, for student testing woes and changed their story.

Education department liaison Elizabeth Fiveash told lawmakers the problems stemmed instead from several other factors:

-- Interference between a test platform and practice test

-- An unauthorized change by the vendor Questar in text-to-speech required for online connections

-- An unscheduled maintenance by a Questar employee

-- A fiber-optic cable outage.

Amid a good deal of teeth-gnashing, the Legislature decided to hold teachers and schools harmless this year, and Fiveash says that will be done.

But even as the state continues to downplay the impact of the test mess, saying 650,000 students in grades 3-12 took TNReady this spring, including 300,000 online, they also cut Questar’s contract by $2.5 million, and they’ve taken all sorts of steps such as starting a public relations campaign and setting up a “stress test” this fall to see how things go.

Remember, this is the test around which our education revolves. It determines student grades, teacher evaluations and school ratings.

In addition, the state hired a consultant, Hum-RRO, and paid it $50,000, deducted from Questar’s payment to do an analysis, which found, among other things, only hundreds of test results – not thousands – were affected by the online outage.

It also determined factors such as “local conversations and media coverage” might have hurt student performance and motivation. Nothing like the media to blame for those dratted high school students who get a little antsy when they take a test and either can’t log on or see their efforts vanish when they try to save when done.

Of course, it was legislators who started alerting the media to these problems when they were getting texts and emails about the debacle from irate constituents during the final days of the legislative session. If anyone is to blame, it would be the General Assembly, right?

Well, maybe it should be the students, because who cares if they can’t work the program correctly.

Then again, maybe the blame should go to Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, which has overseen year after year of testing failure.

Some lawmakers were ready to dump TNReady, and others were ready to fire Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Questar immediately. In fact, many, such as Weaver, still want to get rid of Questar or at least get the state’s money back.

The state will take requests for proposals from vendors during the next year, Fiveash says, but it’s too late in the process to dump Questar because of the long, involved process of putting together the test and figuring out how to administer it. It still hasn’t.

And by the time the test is given next spring, Tennessee will have a new governor in office and, probably, a new education commissioner, leaving it to someone else to fend off the blows if Questar jacks it again.

In the meantime, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway says those RFPs need “more specific requirements” for vendor performance and better vetting of the companies applying for the work.

Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, says he got the feeling in previous meetings a “naïve” education department was being led astray by Questar while some state officials were more worried about protecting their turf than holding the vendor accountable.

“I’m not hearing everything that I want to hear,” Hardaway continues. “I have more faith now that the department is moving in the right direction, but we’re still going to have to have oversight.”

Not the only snafu

This whole matter doesn’t end with TNReady, either.

While school systems, teachers and students are wondering what went wrong with their standardized testing in April, some teachers in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade are finding themselves in a similar situation with their evaluations.

Their kids don’t take the same test as the older students, but that doesn’t mean they can escape Tennessee’s teacher assessments.

Remember, it’s just as important to grade our teachers as it is our students. Never mind these young children would probably be better off playing outside than trying to work quadratic equations.

For their own evaluations, teachers have to figure out how much progress their students made during the year on everything from counting forward and backwards from 1-100 and writing sentences with correct grammar – as if people in their twenties can.

But in putting together “narratives” explaining student progress in relation to the “rubric” – which is as hard to define as the method for splitting atoms – some teachers apparently goofed when they logged the information for others to cipher. In fact, some teachers received a score of 1 out of 1-5 on their assessments if they “mismatched” students and/or standards when putting in the information.

“For example, a teacher may have selected different standards on point A than they did at point B. It is impossible, then, to see whether students grew in their mastery of the standards between those two points or to provide feedback about this individual collection,” says Sara Gast, spokesman for the department of education.

About 7 percent of teachers received an overall score of 1, but 80 percent of prekindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade teachers received a score of 3, 4 or 5 on student growth, meaning their students met or exceeded expectations, Gast says. Nearly 60 percent received a 4 or 5 on their portfolio, she adds.

Yet we really don’t know how well some teachers and students did if their grading was messed up. So what good is it? About as good as doodly-squat.

Some teachers say the problem lies with poor training for this new method of filling out student assessments. State and local systems didn’t spend enough time teaching teachers how to fill in the blanks.

“The whole system needs to stop, and we need to start from ground zero. And I’d be more than willing to help,” says Elena Burgess, a 19-year teacher in Rutherford County Schools. “But we need to stop throwing more things on teachers. Our platters are full, and we’re caving in.”

Luckily, they’ll escape having 35 percent of their “portfolios” upset by poor ratings this year, another hold-harmless situation. And the state is putting up “guardrails” to cut down on the risk of errors on judging “rubric” advancement.

The analysis

Anyone who’s ever been to a school board meeting or education department hearing probably emerged with a headache or at least a spinning head. Between the “onboarding,” “rubric,” “pre-populating,” “inputting,” “criteria-matching” and “streamlining” it’s amazing anyone can figure what the heck they’re saying. No wonder education is so out of whack.

Meanwhile, students’ scores this year show little, if any, improvement – if you can believe the results. They’re regressing in most areas, including high school English and language arts, which would be no surprise, considering many kids spend more time with their heads buried in a cell phone than conversing with people who have at least half-decent grammar.

A sneaking suspicion among some people inside and outside the education profession is that Tennessee spends too much time worrying about the results of TNReady and the kindergarten kicker, giving teachers less time to concentrate on fundamentals and forcing them to spend hours prepping students for the test and then finally grading, if not fretting over, online testing foul-ups.

This is what happens when the Legislature and governor foist this stuff onto teachers, students and administrators.

That reminds me of another scene from Josey Wales. A Union senator explains to Fletcher, the head of Wales’ Confederate cavalry outfit, how the spoils go to the victors, as the old saying goes, and he’s got to start “winning the peace.”

To which Fletcher responds: “There’s another old saying, Senator: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Daily Memphian, Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard@dailymemphian.com.