test prep

In final year of Common Core, Tennessee teachers can use practice test questions from PARCC

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

As Tennessee prepares students for its final year of tests aligned with Common Core standards, teachers can pull practice questions from a variety of sources, including the same testing consortium that the state once distanced itself from.

In 2014, Tennessee joined other states that pulled out of a multistate consortium known as PARCC due to the growing political backlash over Common Core — the standards on which the consortium is based. That exit led Tennessee to work with a private test maker to develop its own assessment called TNReady.

At a TNReady training session last week in Memphis, educators were told that this year’s TNReady questions will look different than they’ve seen on past tests. Those seeking practice questions for their students were directed to the state’s internal online platform called EdTools. Questions from PARCC and Smarter Balanced, another testing consortium, also are acceptable as long as they “aligned to our standards,” said Nakia Towns, assistant state education commissioner for data and research.

“But in terms of the rigor of those items and the development process for those two consortiums, I would say definitely those are high-quality items,” Towns told the group.

Tennessee still uses Common Core as its guide for teaching and testing, even though state officials formally dropped using the controversial name in recent years.

Officially, this will be Tennessee’s final year to administer Common Core-aligned tests for math and English language arts. Next school year, the state switches to teaching and testing to its Tennessee Academic Standards, developed after 18 months of review and revisions that began with an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

And when the testing window opens on April 17 for grades 3-11, this will be the first year of administering TNReady under Questar Assessments Inc., the state’s new testing company. The State Department of Education hired the Minneapolis-based firm last summer after firing North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. only a few months earlier. The switch came after the botched online debut of TNReady led to the test’s cancellation last year for grades 3-8.

Why the failed debut of TNReady leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

Representatives of Questar were among those fielding questions from teachers last week in Memphis. Marty Mineck, a Questar vice president, said TNReady is a homegrown test that won’t look like the company’s assessments in other states.

“This is not a Questar assessment. This is not a Questar test. The reason we are here is to build a TNReady that is literally for the students of Tennessee,” he told the group.

Unlike last year, most students will take TNReady by pen and paper. After the statewide attempt at online testing failed in 2016, the Department of Education adopted a new game plan that includes gradually transitioning most schools to online testing by 2019. Only 25 out of 130 eligible districts have signed up for online testing this spring for their high school students.

The TNReady training in Memphis was among six hosted across Tennessee by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonpartisan education advocacy group founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. The other sessions were held in Chattanooga, Kingsport, Knoxville, Jackson and Nashville. In all, about 500 teachers have attended.

Clarification: March 30, 2017: This version clarifies that the State Department of Education is directing teachers seeking practice questions to its EdTools platform, but also has endorsed using PARCC as a resource.

Social studies switch

At 11th hour, lawmakers mandate a whole semester of Tennessee history, but don’t specify where it will fit

PHOTO: Malia, Flickr

Tennessee students will have to take a whole semester of state history after all — but no one knows in what grade.

In the waning hours of the legislative session, the House this week approved the change, only days after its sponsor had said he was going to wait until 2018 to hash out the details. The Senate already had passed the measure, which does not specify the grade level for the course.

Now, the state will have to adjust social studies standards that already have gone through a significant amount of review and are one vote from final approval by the State Board of Education. It’s uncertain what that will entail, but board leaders pledged their cooperation.

“The State Board of Education will partner with the Department of Education to ensure that the social studies standards are in full compliance with any new state law before they are heard on final reading at the Board’s July 2017 meeting,” said executive director Sara Heyburn Morrison in a statement.

The law will go into effect for the 2018-19 school year, the year before the new standards, which were supposedly finished, are scheduled to reach classrooms.

One of the reasons for the state’s social studies review, which began in January 2016, was the large number of standards that teachers were struggling to cover. The review panel worked to winnow those down to a more manageable amount and did not include a separate semester for Tennessee history.

To eke the bill through, House leaders amended another bill to include the mandate. Rep. Art Swann, the House sponsor, said Thursday that he was glad not to put off the measure until next year.

“We’re still going to have to wait for implementation, which will take a year or two to get done,”  said the Maryville Republican.

Swann said he didn’t discuss the changes with the State Department of Education. “The Senate sent me the language, and it was fine with me and that’s what we ran with,” he said.

Eight of the nine members of the Standards Recommendation Committee who vetted the proposed new standards believe they allow teachers to go in-depth on important historical topics. But member Bill Carey, who sells Tennessee history materials through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids, voted against some of the standards. He was mostly concerned with the reduction of Tennessee historical facts in grades 1-5.

Architects of the new standards say teachers still could cover such topics, but that decisions about how should be made at the local level.

Called the Douglas Henry History Act, the legislation mandating the course is named after the longtime state senator from Nashville who died in March.

Scrutinizing Content

You’ve heard what Buzzfeed thinks about Tennessee’s social studies standards. Here’s what teachers say.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
The civil rights movement, depicted in displays (above) at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, is among Tennessee-specific topics that would be reorganized in the state's proposed new social studies standards.

Mark Finchum loves to teach his social studies students about Nancy Ward, a Native American who brokered peace between European settlers and Cherokee Indians in what is now East Tennessee.

Ward isn’t identified in Tennessee’s proposed new standards for social studies. But Finchum says that doesn’t mean she’s not important, or that his students at Jefferson County High School won’t get to learn about her. He’ll make time between teaching state standards to tell students about her, too.

Most people weighing in on Tennessee’s controversial new social studies standards have been teachers like Finchum — voices largely missing from debate that has spilled onto national media sites like Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.

The standards have generated controversy two years in a row. Last year, concerns about an overrepresentation of Islam in seventh-grade world history propelled them to national headlines. This year, Tennessee has been derided in media reports that lessons about Islam, as well as important events in the civil rights and women’s movements, may be cut out of revisions.

Social studies, which includes civics, history, geography, and economics, has been a flashpoint across the nation in recent years, including concerns that politics and cultural values are bleeding into curriculum or textbooksTennessee is one of the few states to open up its standards revision process to the public, the result of a 2015 state law.

The state-appointed Standards Review Committee responded this month to the recent hoopla over social studies by extending its public review by six weeks to December. Now, Tennessee residents have more time to weigh in on what historical facts the state’s students should know at each grade level.

So far, 65 percent of reviews of the proposed standards have come from K-12 teachers, according to data presented Friday to the panel monitoring the process.

Tennessee’s review wasn’t actually due until 2018, but teachers had complained they were having to teach too many standards; then the process was hastened by controversy over instruction about Islam.

Overall, teachers participating in the review process thus far prefer the proposed standards to current ones. In the first public online review, which was open to any Tennessee resident, 64 percent of the reviews were to keep current standards, a contrast to last year’s examination of the Common Core standards for math and English, where most reviewers were happy with the existing standards.

In the last two years, Tennessee has launched standards reviews of all four core subjects, and social studies is the last one to be wrapped up. So far, the proposed social studies revision has the highest percentage of approval for standards of any subject, according to the State Board of Education.

Finchum, a former president of the Tennessee Council for Social Studies, said he welcomes a set of slimmed-down standards. Under the current ones, he’s expected to cover 105 standards in a 180-day school year. The proposed revision has only 84. Still, he isn’t thrilled with some of the cuts. He’d like a course in Tennessee history to be required instead of elective. But it’s impossible to please everyone, he acknowledges.

“Whatever the decision is, however they look at the end, I’ll agree with a lot of that, and disagree with some,” said Finchum, who attended a roundtable about the draft earlier this month in Knoxville. “There will never be a complete consensus, but trimming will be helpful.”

Other teachers say they already adapt their lessons according to current standards and expect to do the same with the new ones, which will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

Amelia Klug, a fifth-grade teacher at Valor Collegiate Academy in Nashville, says the standards are only one of many components of designing her curriculum — what materials to use in class, and how she structures lessons. The focus of her class is social justice: Is the American Dream accessible to everyone? Why or why not?

“I take the standards and ask questions that allow my students to relate history to their own lives and experiences,” Klug said. For instance, the high number of current standards only allows for two to three days to teach about the civil rights movement, so she incorporates the topic in other lessons. “I don’t necessarily feel tied back,” she said.