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Five takeaways from Tennessee’s ‘quick score’ flap

Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research for the State Department of Education, explains test calculation changes to Shelby County teachers earlier this month in Memphis.
Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research for the State Department of Education, explains test calculation changes to Shelby County teachers earlier this month in Memphis.
Caroline Bauman

Officials with the State Department of Education have been doing a lot of explaining in the month since confusion erupted around this year’s standardized test scores.

Each explanation — before teacher groups, members of the State Board of Education, and a state testing task force — has yielded more information, but no complete accounting of why this year’s preliminary test scores suddenly did not reflect students’ real performance. Parents and educators continue to have questions.

The issue first arose in May when Tennessee teachers in grades 3-8 received higher-than-expected “quick scores” for their students. Issued because the state’s official test scores are not available until midsummer, quick scores are preliminary scores that teachers must incorporate into students’ final grades.

In the past, quick scores accurately predicted a student’s performance level on the test as being below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. But this year, the state used a new formula to calculate quick scores — one that isn’t connected to performance levels at all. And state officials neglected to tell districts about the change. So when teachers received higher-than-expected scores this spring, many concluded that more students than ever were scoring proficient — and passed along the impression to parents in the form of high end-of-year grades.

Except that it wasn’t true. After some educators began questioning the results — and the state’s motive behind them — state officials dispatched letters alerting school directors to the calculation change and explaining that a high quick score doesn’t necessarily equate to a proficient or advanced performance level. But while the letter alerted districts to the change, it did not clarify why the change happened and what it means.

After one month of explanations and presentations, here’s what we now know — and what we still don’t:

1. There was no need for the change this year.

When State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said last week that the change “needed to happen,” she was alluding to looming changes to the state’s testing program.

Originally, the state planned to switch to a new Common Core-aligned test known as PARCC this year. The switch would have required a new quick score formula because the old one depended on past years’ performance data. Indeed, Nakia Towns, assistant state education commissioner for data and research, told members of a testing task force this week that Department of Education officials initially explored changing the way they calculated quick scores back when Tennessee students were preparing for PARCC.

But legislators voted in April 2014 to delay the arrival of Common Core-aligned tests. Their decision meant that students this year took tests that did not reflect the standards in place in the state — and also that the old quick score formula would have worked just fine. Education officials proceeded with the new calculation method anyway.

2. The flap points to bumps in the leadership transition at the State Department of Education.

At this week’s task force meeting, Towns said she takes “full ownership for this mistake.”

But if the department’s explanation for the change is true, and the change was made in advance of PARCC testing, then the decision to change quick scores was made during the tenure of Kevin Huffman, the state schools chief who left at the end of 2014 after ushering Tennessee schools through massive changes under the federal Race to the Top initiative. Towns and McQueen joined the department in early 2015, and both said they were not aware of the change until it went into effect. Huffman has declined to comment.

Taken together, their statements point to one possible explanation for the communication lapse: that someone within the small army of statisticians and bureaucrats who administer the state’s increasingly complex testing program made the change — but no one told educators and families on the ground. That scenario raises questions about whether the department is set up to keep Tennesseans in the loop about information that’s important to them — and whether the recent leadership shift, and attendant changing of the guard within the department, has compounded longstanding communication challenges.

3. McQueen’s brief honeymoon as education commissioner is over.

Candice McQueen
Candice McQueen
TN.gov

Huffman’s resignation came amid accolades from Gov. Bill Haslam and education leaders, and criticism from educators who complained that his initiatives had contributed to a culture of over-testing. But Tennessee’s oft-divided education community was united in its embrace of Huffman’s successor. A former classroom teacher, McQueen has enjoyed widespread approval as she repeatedly has emphasized the importance of transparency and worked to solicit more feedback from parents and educators about standardized testing.

The quick score blunder has put her on the defensive for the first time. The State Board of Education has pressed her for an explanation, and 13 community organizations joined to circulate an online petition criticizing the state’s lack of transparency about its testing program.

Last week, she told the state board that the calculation change needed to happen before next school year, when the state rolls out its new achievement test, known as TNReady. But she acknowledged that the state dropped the ball by not communicating better with local districts.

4. The snafu undermines Tennessee’s recent advances and accolades for becoming more honest about its students’ performance.

Race to the Top, the federal funding initiative that led Tennessee to adopt the Common Core standards and overhaul its testing program, was in part aimed at stopping states from misleading students about their skills.

“I think we are fundamentally lying to children,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2009, in comments he would repeat many times. “When children are told they are ‘meeting a state standard,’ the logical assumption for that child or for that parent is to think they are on track to be successful. But because these standards have been dummied down and lowered so much in so many places, when a child is ‘meeting the state standard’ they are in fact barely able to graduate from high school.”

Tennessee was no outlier: In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an “F” for truth in advertising about student achievement.

Since then, the state has taken substantial steps to ensure that test scores accurately reflect students’ skill levels. Just last month, an education advocacy group lauded Tennessee for closing the “honesty gap” between student test scores and reality.

The quick score flap suggests that the gap is far from closed, however. Teachers’ primary complaint has been that the state’s fumble made them unwitting accomplices in misleading parents and students about student academic performance. Valerie Love, a Kingsport high school math teacher on McQueen’s task force and a parent of two elementary school students, said parents saw higher scores and thought “my kid knows something” — only to learn later that their child actually is struggling academically. “What the grade communicates to the community is what concerns me,” Love said.

5. The future of quick scores — and how parents are informed about student performance — is uncertain.

Towns asked task force members — which include parents, teachers, lawmakers and superintendents — for ideas on how to ensure that the confusion isn’t repeated. A 2010 state law, passed as part of Race to the Top, requires districts to incorporate state achievement test scores into final grades, but it doesn’t stipulate how. Quick scores previously were considered the easiest way.

“Some districts have asked, why don’t you just provide the raw score, and let us figure it out?” Towns said.

Another solution floated this week is to issue more comprehensive quick score reports for parents, so they are not misled about the meaning of the score. The department also is exploring establishing a parent advisory council, and looking at ways to make TCAP reports more comprehensive and user-friendly, rather than relying on quick scores as the primary source of performance information.

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