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Common questions (and answers) about the future of testing in Tennessee

Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

This week, thousands of Tennessee students are staring at bubble sheets and twirling No. 2 pencils as they take the state’s standardized assessments, better known as TCAPs, or the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

But this time next year, testing at most schools will look entirely different, at least in math and English language arts. Some content may be revised based on the latest academic standards or benchmarks. Instead of using paper and pencil, students in most districts will be facing computer screens. And instead of choosing between answers a, b, c, d or e, they’ll be typing out longer answers.

As students answer questions on this year’s TCAPs, you probably have a few questions of your own about Tennessee’s assessment of the future and how it came to be. Here are some common questions — and the answers:

Is this the last year of TCAPs?

In its current form, yes. But as a whole, no. The TCAP program currently encompasses all of the state’s standardized assessments for grades 3-8 in English, math, social studies and science. Beginning next school year, the math and English tests will remain part of the TCAP program but will be branded as “TNReady.” Tests for social studies and science still will be referred to as TCAPs. For high school, tests currently are referred to as end-of-course tests but, beginning next school year, also will be referred to as TNReady for English and math.

Tennessee’s academic standards have changed several times in the last five years, but its assessment appears to have stayed the same. Why?

This school year’s assessments in math and language arts were written in accordance with the Tennessee Diploma Standards, which the state adopted in 2008. Two years later, the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards for math and English during the period when Tennessee was pursuing the federal Race to the Top grant. The Tennessee Department of Education fully implemented the Common Core by the 2013-14 school year. Accordingly, last spring was supposed to be the last for administering TCAPs. Districts planned to switch this spring to the PARCC assessment, which was designed through a national consortium specifically to test mastery of the Common Core. However, the legislature voted to delay the PARCC and to continue using the Diploma Standards-aligned TCAPs for math and language arts for another year. Soon afterward, the state Department of Education cut ties with the consortium and hired Measurement Inc., a North Carolina-based testing company, to develop an updated assessment for Tennessee.

Wait! So we adopted new standards in 2010, but still don’t have a test based on those standards? How did that happen?

The state Department of Education tried to mitigate the problems of misalignment by removing and reordering test questions from TCAP tests according to the Common Core. However, TNReady will be the first assessment in Tennessee truly designed with Common Core in mind.

But why is this test based on Common Core? Didn’t the legislature just repeal Common Core?

It did, sort of. But in order to give educators and students time to adopt to any changes that may come out of Gov. Bill Haslam’s current standards review process, the legislature’s repeal won’t happen this year — or next. According to the repeal legislation’s timeline, the new standards won’t be completed until at least 2017-2018. In the meantime, the new test is being written with the current standards in mind, but also to be adaptable to potential changes under the review.

How will TNReady be different from this year’s math and language arts assessments?

TNReady assessments will feature a variety of question types, including open-ended questions, interactive problems, and questions in which students must explain their multiple-choice selection. In contrast, the current math and English TCAPs are entirely multiple choice. The tests will be taken on computers, rather than with paper and pencil, although districts have the option to continue using pencil and paper for the first three years as part of the transition in technology. Students also will be permitted to use calculators for fewer math problems than in years past.

How are teachers preparing for the switch to TNReady?

Teacher leaders attended workshops earlier this spring to review practice questions from the new test, as well as strategies to prepare for it. The best way to prepare for TNReady is through rich, engaging instruction, said Ashley Ball, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. Because the test questions are generally open-ended, preparation should be rooted in quality lessons emphasizing critical thinking skills instead of just “teaching to the test” or “learning to the test,” and using test preparation materials that are less likely to be retained by students. This summer, teacher trainings will involve reviewing practice items for TNReady but mostly will focus on instructional strategies. You can find more resources for teachers here.

The state’s socials studies test is new this year. Does that have anything to do with TNReady?

The social studies test is unrelated to TNReady. Common Core does not include standards for social studies, although the state’s new social studies standards were designed with Common Core literacy standards in mind. Because this year’s test is a pilot, resulting scores won’t count toward students’ grades or teachers’ evaluation scores.

Did we answer your questions about the state’s new testing tool? Are you ready for TNReady? Let us know your comments and other questions below.

Editor’s note: This version CLARIFIES in the 8th graf that not all TNReady questions will be open-ended.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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