Are Children Learning

State board of education poised to approve list of Common Core-aligned math textbooks

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The state board of education will most likely approve a new list of math textbooks for the state of Tennessee next week — and unlike books available in the past, they will be aligned with the Common Core State Standards, according to members of the textbook commission that approved them.

That would provide teachers with an extra set of tools to help students meet the standards on high-stakes assessment at the end of the year.

The state approves a new list of textbooks for each subject about every six years. In recent years, though, changes in standards have been swift, with Tennessee adopting new math standards in 2008, and again in 2010, with the introduction of the Common Core.

That means that textbooks have quickly fallen out of date. Experts say that even math books marketed as Common Core-aligned are often far from it. And now, open-source, online and customizable curricular materials are more widely available than ever.

The Tennessee textbook commission, which includes three math teachers from across the state as well as two superintendents and a principal, approved the list of more than 400 books and workbooks earlier this month. The textbooks were evaluated by 38 math teachers from across the state, all of whom had been trained on the state standards for math.

The commission then made recommendations based on the evaluators’ reviews, followed by  a period of public review before the commission finalized it. The reviewers’ focus was on making sure the books were focused on material related to the standards, and making sure the books were rigorous.

Although the state provides the list of approved textbooks, it is up to the discretion of each district to decide which books it will buy, or if it will buy a set of textbooks at all.

Monty Wilson, the head of the textbook commission and a former teacher, said that the aim is to cut the workload for local districts seeking quality materials, because they can focus their search on the materials right for their district on a list of books already screened by the state, rather than every book published in the country.

“A large proportion of work is complete for districts, because we ensure that (the textbooks on the list) meet a certain level of rigor,” he said.

Cory Concus, a math teacher at Covington High School in Tipton County,  served on the math textbook commission this year. Like other Tennessee teachers, he had been underwhelmed by past textbooks because they often covered material that had been taught in earlier grades, while lacking grade-level content. 

He said he was surprised at how rigorous the adoption cycle was, and how much attention was paid to ensure that the approved books were aligned with the standards teachers need to use. The rubric evaluators used (embedded below) stresses the importance of books reflecting Tennessee’s standards, and begins with a notice to evaluators of the importance of standards alignment.

This might be the first year that books aligned with the Common Core even exist, said Morgan Polikoff, a researcher from the University of Southern California.

After most states in the country adopted Common Core State Standards, textbook companies rushed to adapt their textbooks to the new standards — but studies by Polikoff and  William Schmidt at Michigan State University  show that the majority of those books were almost unchanged from pre-Common Core iterations.

“It is a sham,” Schmidt said at the Education Writers Association conference in Nashville in May. “These snake-oil salesmen run over the country and tell all these poor districts and teachers that the books line up. The yellow stamp on the front has nothing to do with the substance within the book.”

Schmidt said books that are Common Core-aligned should cover fewer topics, but more in-depth.

“If we keep teaching—fractions, for example—to very little depth, kids aren’t going to get it and Common Core will be blamed,” he said in May.

Polikoff said that it was possible the books Tennessee approved will be aligned, since they were all published this year. His past studies of books published by Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill showed that even books the publishers claimed to be core-aligned were missing content related to the standards, or had content that was unrelated to the standards. But he said he had not yet studied the books approved by Tennessee, which were published this year.

Teachers who have been relying on online materials, or creating their own, would welcome better texts, said Mary Ashlock, a math teacher in Henry County.

“If I had a textbook that was worth a flip, I would probably use it,” she said.

Here’s the rubric reviewers used:

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McQueen declares online practice test of TNReady a success

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Tennessee’s computer testing platform held steady Tuesday as thousands of students logged on to test the test that lumbered through fits and starts last spring.

Hours after completing the 40-minute simulation with the help of more than a third of the state’s school districts, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared the practice run a success.

“We saw what we expected to see: a high volume of students are able to be on the testing platform simultaneously, and they are able to log on and submit practice tests in an overlapping way across Tennessee’s two time zones,” McQueen wrote district superintendents in a celebratory email.

McQueen ordered the “verification test” as a precaution to ensure that Questar, the state’s testing company, had fixed the bugs that contributed to widespread technical snafus and disruptions in April.

The spot check also allowed students to gain experience with the online platform and TNReady content.

“Within the next week, the districts that participated will receive a score report for all students that took a practice test to provide some information about students’ performance that can help inform their teachers’ instruction,” McQueen wrote.

The mock test simulated real testing conditions that schools will face this school year, with students on Eastern Time submitting their exams while students on Central Time were logging on.

In all, about 50,000 students across 51 districts participated, far more than the 30,000 high schoolers who will take their exams online after Thanksgiving in this school year’s first round of TNReady testing. Another simulation is planned before April when the vast majority of testing begins both online and with paper materials.

McQueen said her department will gather feedback this week from districts that participated in the simulation.

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Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central Time and 9 a.m. Eastern Time in participating schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some high school students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.

Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018

The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.

Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”