While the fallout over accountability under Tennessee’s new beleaguered assessment has focused on teacher evaluations, new provisions are also in place for low-performing schools on the bubble for state intervention.
Educators and lawmakers praised the bill signed last week by Gov. Bill Haslam to allow teachers to discount this year’s TNReady scores from their evaluations in the wake of a string of problems in administering the standardized test. Those evaluations can impact teachers when it comes to hiring, firing, retention or promotions.
But for schools at risk of making the state’s next priority list, which identifies schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent based on student achievement, the potential impact from test growth data is equally daunting. Schools on the priority list become eligible for takeover by the state-run Achievement School District, which takes control from the local district and generally assigns those schools to charter operators tasked with turning them around in five years.
To address the TNReady school accountability issue amid the test’s bumpy rollout, officials with the State Department of Education say this year’s scores won’t be able to land a school on the priority list. The department plans to release two priority lists in 2017 — the next year that the list is due to be issued — one that includes TNReady data from this year, and one that only includes data from the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years. A school must be on both priority lists to be eligible for state intervention.
“If the first year of TNReady is the only data that puts you on the priority list, you’re not on the list,” Rep. John Forgety told lawmakers duriang a House education committee meeting earlier this month.
Nor will this year’s test scores impact districts. In fact, the Department of Education never planned to use the percentage of students passing this year’s test to evaluate districts for the 2015-16 school year, according to its most recent waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, districts will receive the better of two options for purposes of the achievement and gap closure statuses: a one-year growth measure or their relative rank in the state.
This year’s scores, however, will impact who ends up on the coveted “reward list,” which includes schools in the top 5 percent according to achievement or growth.
For teacher evaluations, the recently signed state law was necessary to tweak Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system codified under First to the Top legislation passed in 2010. But no state law is needed when it comes to the Department of Education adjusting its rules for determining its priority list.
“We have the legal authority to do that without legislation, but evaluation is in statute,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, the department’s director of legislative affairs, during recent testimony before lawmakers.
This isn’t the first time the department has changed up the rules on priority schools. With the plan to release a new priority list every three years, the state released its first one in 2012. Then, its second-ever list was released in 2014, a year early, because of the plan for students to take PARCC, an online Common Core-aligned test, in 2015. That adjusted schedule ultimately was unnecessary because the state legislature opted to drop PARCC and contract with Measurement Inc., a North Carolina company, to design its own test, now known as TNReady.
But in the first hour of rolling out Tennessee’s new online assessment on Feb. 8, network outages derailed TNReady and prompted state officials to scrap the computer-based test this year and revert to paper-based tests for now.
Many states that transitioned to online testing before Tennessee — including Colorado, New York and Indiana — didn’t allow test scores for the first year to count against schools, students or teachers. Tennessee’s Education Department has taken a more piecemeal approach.
Student test scores won’t be factored into grades because the test scores will come out in the fall, too late to make it onto end-of-year report cards. And Haslam only agreed to grant teachers a “hold harmless” year after the botched online rollout of TNReady.
The debate over how TNReady scores should be counted likely will extend into the next school year. Many legislators expressed frustration that in the 2016-17 school year — in only the second round of testing and presumably the first round when the test will be administered online — test scores will count for a greater proportion of teachers’ evaluations. It’s likely that legislation will be introduced next year to reduce the weight of test scores in accountability measures as well, so that TNReady data would only count for 10 percent of teachers’ scores.
“I just think we don’t even know if it’s going to work that well next year either,” said Rep. Sheila Butt before she voted for the legislation in committee.
Teachers who testified about TNReady to the legislature this year were enthusiastic about the prospect of another year to figure out the new test.
“As we know the test has had a number of issues, and that creates a lack of confidence in the test and a lack of confidence in the data,” said Joe Crabtree, a sixth-grade science and social studies teacher from Johnson City. “We would also definitely support the ‘hold harmless’ year and the movement for 10 percent next year.”