Ready for TNReady?

New TNReady test will be harder to ‘game,’ say education officials

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Test-taking strategies, such as “when in doubt, guess C,” soon will be obsolete in Tennessee, at least when it comes to the state’s end-of-year standardized assessments.

TNReady, the new math and English assessment for grades 3-11, is designed to go deeper than the bubble sheet tests of the past, and be “harder to game,” officials say, meaning that students won’t as easily get points for guessing.

The test also should convey more information about how well students are prepared for the world outside of school — by asking more questions about real-world scenarios and challenging students more than ever before.

“We’re moving into a better test that will provide us better information about how well our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters recently during sneak peek at some of the questions.

The questions are meant to require more than rote memorization, added Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of data and research.

“We recognize the way we have designed TNReady means this is not a test you can game,” she said.

Designed by North-Carolina-based Measurement Inc., TNReady will include several types of questions. Some questions take advantage of the online format and require students to use drag-and-drop tools. Others ask students to write short paragraphs explaining how they solved a problem. And still others are multiple choice, but allow students to select multiple answers. Altogether, the test not only will require students to remember facts they’ve memorized, and imitate procedures they’ve seen their teachers do, but show that they understand concepts on their own.

Tennessee began its transition to a new kind of test in 2010 when the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, with academic benchmarks that focus more on student understanding than on memorizing a formula or procedure that can get the right answer. The state was supposed to move in 2015 to the PARCC, a Common Core-aligned assessment shared by several states, but the legislature voted in 2014 to stick to its multiple-choice TCAP test while state education leaders searched for a test similar to the PARCC but designed exclusively for Tennessee students. In the meantime, several states have switched to tests aligned to the Common Core or similar standards, which are supposed to take aim at one of the oldest and most potent criticisms of tests: that they force teachers to “teach to the test” and focus unduly on memorizing facts and testing tricks that students promptly forget after completing the test.

“These tests have much more emphasis on student reasoning and depth of knowledge than one has seen in the past,” says Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Education and an adviser in developing similar tests in other states.

However, he notes the challenge of developing questions aimed at deeper learning that also can be graded in a timely manner.

“It’s not down to a science yet,” Briggs explained.

The benefit of multiple-choice tests is that they can be scored almost instantly. The downside is they don’t necessarily give insight into how a student knows the answer. “The challenge is, how do you get at a student’s reasoning with items that aren’t fully open-ended?” Briggs asked.

Ilana Horn, a mathematics education professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, said she recently looked through sample questions posted online for parents by the state Department of Education.

“Some of the questions hit the mark,” Horn said, adding that they required students to think deeply about mathematical concepts. She cited a math question for grades 3-5, requiring students to click on a grid to create a figure with an area of 18 square units. A student couldn’t answer correctly merely by memorizing the formula for area.

“If they learned math procedurally and you asked them what area is, they’d say length times width,” she said. “And when you showed them the figure and said, ‘Where’s the area?’ they would blink at you.”

But she said other questions — like one that asks students to choose the answers that round up to eight — still are too focused on procedure.

“The problem is, when kids memorize an equation just for a test, it doesn’t give them deep understandings of what they’re doing mathematically,” Horn said. “And then they forget.”

Although at least some TNReady questions will do a better job of telling teachers what their students know and how they know it, Horn said tests always will be imperfect measures of student learning and teacher quality because they also convey information about cultural backgrounds and poverty.

For example, even the math portion of TNReady will require more literacy skills than the old TCAP did — and how well a student can read and write depends in large part on what a student is exposed to before ever stepping foot in a classroom.

As for why students will need to be strong readers to do well on a math test, Briggs says the idea of what it means to be ready for college or a career is changing.

“Historically, there’s been an attempt to have as little writing as possible on math assessments. You didn’t want to mix up math and verbal skills,” he said. “But our conception of what it means to be mathematically proficient is changing. You have to communicate what you’re doing.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede