Straight Talk On TCAP Delay

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Tennessee we appreciate straight talk and candor. We unquestionably detest hypocrisy.  We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies and even by our government.   This has been quite evident in recent days by the Tennessee Department of Education, who inexcusably failed to get test scores to districts on time after months of preparation.  

Perhaps in a kinder, gentler world we could shrug our shoulders and say “go get them next time.”  However, this is the age of accountability with the “survival-of-the-fittest” or “me-first” attitude that thrives (largely driven by the politics and culture in which we live).  In this case, accountability in public education on the TCAP problem begins and ends with the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Test results, as pointed out by one editorial in Knoxville “are used in teacher evaluations, in grading the overall performance of individual schools and systems and for other purposes.”  State law requires that TCAP results account for 15 percent to 25 percent of a student’s final grade.  An argument can be made that Common Core and TCAP are not aligned so it does not make sense to use the TCAP scores in calculating students' final grades.  An appropriate response to that statement would be, perhaps they should not have been teaching standards that did not align with what students were going to be tested over the last couple of years and making it part of a student’s final grade. 

Our belief is that this latest testing gaffe was simply due to incompetence, rather than any intentional violation of laws, regulations or established procedures not being followed.  The men and women at the Tennessee Department of Education work extremely hard, just like the men and women who teach in our schools.  They strive for excellence, and should not be impugned by this particular fiasco, no matter how well intentioned the stated objectives for the delay.   A mistake was made, and we should endeavor to make sure it does not occur in the future. 

As an organization, we believe in due diligence and avoiding overreacting to issues.  We have adopted the discipline by carefully choosing our words carefully, like the carpenter who measures twice, cuts once. At times, systems simply do not work, and they need to be corrected.   That is our message to policymakers and stakeholders alike.  There is no attempt to imply any nefarious activity.     

However, there is no denying that school systems across the state were blindsided by the delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores.  Every system in the state was impacted.  Policymakers must ensure the public is served:  especially the children, families and school districts across the state.  To that end, we requested that legislators inquire, formally or informally, specific information from the Tennessee Department of Education immediately.  In fact, if the Tennessee General Assembly were in session we believe a hearing on this matter would be appropriate.  The goal here is not to blame, but rather correct system failure. 

We would suggest asking the following questions: 

When was Ms. Erin O’ Hara, assistant commissioner for data and research, made aware of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores?

When were other state officials and members of the General Assembly, such as Commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam, made aware of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores? 

Who made the decision to not notify superintendents immediately of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores? And when was that decision made?

Who were the unnamed “external experts” that signed off on the validity, reliability and accuracy of the results? Please list their names, qualifications and any existing contract authorizing their role in this issue. 

Was any unnamed “external expert” granted access to individual student data?  If so please disclose the names, qualifications and contract that granted experts access to the information they utilized .

Where in current existing state law is permission granted to the Commissioner of Education to issue waivers for exemption from a state requirement that TCAP scores account for 15-25 percent of students’ final grades?  (According to the Tennessean 104 school districts requested waivers). 

What is the financial cost to the school districts and state created by the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores? Will the state cover this cost for districts? 

What safeguards can be put in place to avoid any future issues, or should we simply not count test results in students' final grades? 

The use of high-stakes testing as the sole measure of student achievement is justly under increased scrutiny.  We welcome that discussion and debate.

As we have continuously pointed out, transitioning to any new test, the most common issues that the state has not addressed is ongoing or increasing costs, technical concerns and fears that the test could limit flexibility in crafting future curriculum.  Transitioning Tennessee’s value-added data from TCAP to whatever future test the state ultimately adopts and utilizes will also take some time and adjustment---that is to be expected.  A potential issue we anticipate is that the state has not adequately made clear how TVAAS will handle the transition from all bubble-in tests to constructed response tests. Legislators must start asking more detailed questions, and seeking answers from educators in our schools. There will always be issues, debate and discussion in public education.   

In the end, getting accountability correct is the objective.  The decisions policymakers make on behalf of students are actions of no small consequence. No one, least of all educators, would desire to see students victimized by testing. When we make decisions on the basis of untimely data or careless research, we place students at risk.  We can and we must do better.

J.C. Bowman and Audrey Shores

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