No easy answers

Cuts in state testing could have unintended consequences

Michigan officials put 21 schools on its list to improve academic performace

Some testing critics have pushed for trimming Colorado’s K-12 tests back to only what’s required by the federal government, but making that move isn’t as simple as it sounds, the State Board of Education was told Wednesday.

While the overall impact wouldn’t be huge, reduction of testing could have ripple effects in the state’s system of rating districts and schools, causing some ratings to rise and other to drop.

For instance, the Boulder Valley schools would rise from “performance” to “distinction,” the highest level of the state accreditations system. But the Littleton schools would drop one level, to “performance.” And the Greeley district would drop one step from “improvement” to “priority improvement,” the second lowest level.

Overall, 11 districts would receive higher ratings and 28 would decline. Ninety-nine schools would get higher ratings while 97 would drop. (See the slides at the bottom of this article for the full list of theoretical district changes, plus information on how ratings for individual schools might shift.)

The conversation was prompted by the release of the 2014 TCAP results, which started a lively SBE discussion on testing at its August meeting (see story). Members asked Department of Education staff to return in September with more information on questions like what would happen if Colorado scaled back its testing system to only what is required by federal law.

Colorado imposes more tests on public school students than are required by federal law, which basically calls for language arts and math tests in 3rd through 8th grade, plus once between 10th and 12th grade. Science tests are required once each in elementary school, middle school and high school.

But Colorado requires additional tests in high school and three social studies tests during a student’s career, plus ACT tests for all high school juniors, school readiness and early literacy assessments or evaluations. (See this CDE document for a full comparison of state and federal requirements.)

Test results are fed into the complicated state calculations of student performance, academic growth, achievement gaps, dropout rates and graduation rates that are used to generate district and school ratings. So changing the test results could lead to ratings changes.

CDE staff used 2013 test results to do a simulation of how use of results from only federal requirements would affect accreditation ratings. (See these slides for CDE’s full presentation to the board.)

The exercise was a theoretical one, partly because the state testing system will change significantly next year, when the new PARCC tests in English language arts and math are given in all schools. And the workings of the accreditation system are due for review in 2016.

“It could look very different under the new CMAS system,” Alyssa Pearson, CDE executive director of accountability and data analysis. (CMAS is the acronym for the new system that is replacing the TCAPs.)

But even a simulation can be sensitive, given the importance district leaders place on their ratings. As a precaution, CDE emailed every superintendent earlier this week, informing them of the exercise and stressing that it was only a simulation.

“This was a simulation … this is not something we’ve said we’re doing,” stressed Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen.

But, he said, it was important to do the exercise because, “It took us a long time to get the system we currently have. … It needs to be a thoughtful discussion about moving pieces to make sure people don’t see unintended consequences.”

Owen also said the department has queried the U.S. Department of Education about another issue of testing concern – whether results from individual district tests could be used to meet federal requirements.

“We did not get the information” in time for Wednesday’s meeting, Owen said, promising to have details of DOE’s response for the board in October.

CDE Director of Assessment Joyce Zurkowski did have one piece of concrete testing news for the board. She said the department has determined it has sufficient funding to allow districts that choose to do so to give next year’s PARCC math tests on paper rather than online. It also will be possible for districts to give third graders both the math and language arts tests on paper if they choose.

Surveys done for the department earlier this year found some concerns about third graders taking online tests, and about online math tests because students in many schools do math work with pencils and paper. (Learn more about those survey results here.)

State board members are split on testing issues, and where they go from here is somewhat unclear. Members Wednesday mentioned possibly including recommendations in the board’s 2015 legislative priorities (which members will begin discussing next month) and making recommendations to the State Standards and Assessments Task Force, an appointed group that is studying the issue and which is supposed to make recommendations to the legislature in January.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things. (Editor’s note: After this story’s initial publication, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen revealed what the analysis found. Here’s that story.)

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not as much in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.