2017 in review

What we’ve learned: 5 lessons from education research to take into 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

Education research comes out faster than most of us can keep up with — and staying up to date gets even harder when advocates on every side claim that the newest study supports their views.

We’re here to help. Here are some of the most important lessons we’re taking away from 2017, thanks to the researchers who do their best to separate fact from fiction. (The typical caveats apply: these are all subject to change based on new evidence, and each study has limitations.)

1. Teacher certification rules can have negative side effects.

There are two big ways that rules about who can and can’t teach cause problems. First, they disproportionately exclude teachers of color, who a bevy of recent studies have shown benefit students of color. High-stakes exams, GPA cutoffs, and traditional training requirements all hit would-be teachers of color the hardest, and there’s no clear solution.

Another downside of existing rules: they can make it hard for teachers to move to a new state. A recent study finds that although teachers are less likely to move between states than many other professionals, perhaps because of challenges in gaining a new license.

This can hurt students, particularly if effective teachers leave education as a result. And it may explain another new finding: that schools near state borders — and thus most affected by teachers unable to move between states — have lower student achievement.

2. Union protections may benefit students.

Teachers unions have long argued that by protecting teachers and bargaining for better pay, they ultimately help students. Research bolstered their case this year.

Most prominently, an analysis found that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort to dramatically scale back union power hurt student test scores. Another study, this one from California, showed that when charter schools unionize, students saw larger test score gains. That study wasn’t able to pinpoint why.

Two other studies — one from Louisiana, the other from Michigan — showed that removing tenure protections increased teacher turnover, at least in some schools. Past research has found that turnover usually harms students.

3. Students who stay in voucher programs longer do better.

As U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed private school vouchers into the limelight, critics have seized on recent studies showing that using public money to attend a private school can hurt student learning.

But analyses out of Indiana and Louisiana suggest that students who stick around in private school for three to four years see their scores bounce back after an initial drop. By year four, students in Indiana even made some gains in English. Still, many other students saw test scores drop because of the program, including those who left early and students in younger grades in Louisiana.

The disappointing test score results pushed voucher proponents to focus on their impact on other metrics, like high school graduation or college attendance. One study this year found that Florida students who used a tax-credit voucher were more likely to enroll in — though not necessarily complete — two-year college than similar students who attended public school.

4. State tests provide useful information about how schools affect students. Testing can also have unintended consequences.

One study focusing on charter high schools in Chicago showed that not only did those schools raise test scores substantially, they also helped send more kids to college and to stay there. That was also true of Chicago’s Noble charters, a high-profile network. Another piece of research from this year came to a similar conclusion: students who attended high schools in Michigan that raised students’ test scores also earned higher GPAs in college. At least in these contexts, tests were a meaningful gauge of school quality.

However, we also looked at a study showing that students were (slightly) less happy in the classrooms of teachers who were effective at raising test scores. This suggests that there are multiple dimensions to good teaching — and being good at one aspect doesn’t mean you’re good at others.

Finally, another study highlights the challenges of using tests to hold schools accountable: by focusing on test results starting only in third grade — the first year with federally mandated exams — schools are encouraged to place their weaker teachers in earliest grades. And many schools, at least in Miami, Florida, did just that.

5. We still don’t know much about how to turn around a struggling school.

This lesson may be the least surprising to policymakers. But as states try to help low-performing schools under the new federal education law, ESSA, they have a thin research base to draw from.

The highest-profile study on the topic came at the beginning of the year: a federal analysis of the Obama-era turnaround plan known as School Improvement Grants. It did not have any clear benefits — a finding DeVos has since touted to promote her own favored strategies.

But other studies from this year suggest that the effects of the federal improvement grants varied by place: They appear to have had a big impact in both Ohio and San Francisco, but not in Rhode Island.

New York City has also wrestled with this challenge. Early research has found that the city’s high-profile and expensive effort to help schools by offering wraparound services and other help had produced only mixed results.

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jessica Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”

Chalkbeat explains

Four reasons Tennessee likely won’t go back to paper testing

As another wave of problems with online testing plague Tennessee schools, one of the solutions proposed by state legislators — go back to paper exams — is a stretch for a state that has invested millions into electronic exams.

In short, reverting to pencil-and-paper tests would be akin to ordering iPhone users to go back to flip phones. It almost certainly won’t happen.

Two Memphis-area state lawmakers want to ban the online version of TNReady starting next school year until the state comptroller determines its problems are “fully and completely fixed.” And other lawmakers suggest districts should be able to choose between paper and electronic testing..

(Other amendments that would ensure this year’s test results wouldn’t count against teachers, students, or schools passed Thursday.)

The list of problems has grown since the first day of testing Monday, affecting about two dozen districts, including the four largest ones in Tennessee. The meltdown follows the monumental online failure in 2016 when a server crash prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most of state testing that year.

Here are four reasons why it’s unlikely Tennessee won’t go back to paper testing despite current overwhelming frustrations:

Superintendents think they’ve gone too far to turn back now. Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead cautioned against rash decisions in the heat of the moment.

“When things like this happen, it’s easy to overreact,” he told Chalkbeat. “But we’ve come too far. We know that online testing is the future. If we turn back, it will take a long time to get back to where we were.”

And school systems and counties have poured millions into infrastructure and devices, said Dale Lynch, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

“We don’t want to back up. We want to get it right, though,” he said.

Paper is more time consuming. With online testing, McQueen said Wednesday, “we can get test materials [and scores] back or to folks much quicker.”

Preparing paper tests requires hours of sorting and labeling exams. And if the materials arrive late, like they did for several districts this month because of severe weather at Questar’s printing center in the Northeast, the time crunch is especially stressful.

Granted, a top-notch online system that protects against cheating and hacking could be more expensive than a paper version, said Wayne Camara, the research chair at ACT who has long overseen test security.

“The issue of cost is relative.” he said. Multiple versions of computer tests are necessary to help safeguard against cheating, especially via social media.

“If you’ve having to produce 10 or 15 forms of a computer test, most likely it’s not cheaper.”

If Tennessee switches back to paper testing, it will be one of few states nationwide. A recent analysis by John Hopkins School of Education listed 11 states that were still using paper tests in 2016 for elementary students. For middle schools, it was nine states.

Nearly across the board, those states with no experience with online testing did worse in national online testing.


Read more about Tennessee’s most recent performance on “the nation’s report card.”


There’s security issues with paper too. The alleged cyber attack on Questar’s data center Tuesday spraked a statewide outcry, but switching back to paper won’t eliminate security issues.

“Both digital- and paper-based testing are certainly susceptible to cheating,” said Camara, the testing cybersecurity expert. “I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a significant reduction of security measures or cheating with computers, it’s just different.”

One of the largest state test cheating scandals happened in Atlanta with paper tests when principals and teachers changed student answers. That’s much harder to do online.

Jacinthia Jones and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.