Grading the tests

State education task force recommends elimination of some tests, release of TNReady questions

PHOTO: G. Tatter

Amid concerns that Tennessee is over-testing its students, a state task force recommended on Tuesday eliminating the option to test kindergarten and first-graders, as well as dropping two mandatory college preparatory tests for eighth- and 10th-graders.

The panel, charged with reviewing K-12 tests and testing policies, also recommended releasing test questions from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), including the state’s new TNReady assessment, despite the likely high financial cost to the state.

The recommendations come as Tennessee makes a major shift in testing this year with the launch of the TNReady assessment in math and English language arts for grades 3-11. Tennessee students will begin next spring taking the Common Core-aligned test, which will replace the previous exam that doesn’t align with the state’s current academic standards.

The task force urged the release of TCAP questions in order to increase testing transparency — something that teachers have pushed for as tests have become more critical in Tennessee’s teacher evaluation process.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she was unsure of the cost for releasing test questions, since developing new questions each year likely would be expensive. But, she said, the cost is worth it to build trust among students, parents and teachers.

“This is a new time, a new era, and so we believe transparency is more important than ever,” McQueen said during a morning press briefing on the report.

The recommendations reflect concerns raised in other states about the time spent increasingly on standardized testing. Across the nation, thousands of students opted out of end-of-year, Common Core-aligned tests. While frustrations over testing in Tennessee have been more muted, critics have charged that the state and local districts have created a culture of  “over-testing,” prompting McQueen to convene the task force last March — one of her first actions since becoming commissioner in January.

The panel, which completed its work in August after six months of study, discussed topics ranging from testing anxiety to the number of tests administered by districts. Members included teachers, superintendents, elected representatives, a parent and a student, as well as five Department of Education officials. Their recommendations will go to the legislature and the State Board of Education.

The panel’s work focused on four themes: Reducing unnecessary or redundant student tests; transparency in testing; aligning tests to postsecondary and workforce expectations; and supporting districts around test scheduling and logistics.

“Assessments help educators measure student learning, but we must ensure that the assessments we invest our time and resources in are providing meaningful and actionable information to teachers, parents, and students to actually help improve student achievement,” McQueen said in a press release. “As I have traveled the state listening and learning from teachers and parents, I have heard repeatedly that we must make sure that we aren’t duplicating state and district efforts on assessments that take away from important instructional time in the classroom.”

"... We believe transparency is more important than ever."Candice McQueen, Tennessee Education Commissioner

In addition to eliminating annual standardized tests for kindergarten and first-graders, the panel recommended dropping the mandatory EXPLORE test for 8th-graders and PLAN test for sophomores in high school, which are both created by the ACT testing corporation. However, the task force recommended the state should continue to require high school students to take the ACT exam used for college admissions, which briefly came under fire this spring in the legislature.

Though the task force discussed the 2-year-old RTI2 program, which requires frequent, short tests called screeners to identify student needs early, members recommended only that the State Department of Education further study the screeners’ impact on kindergarten and first-grade students.

The task force also recommended that the department should guide schools in reducing student testing anxiety.

“Everyone has a story of students who had some testing anxiety, and wanting to be better able to support that student,” McQueen told reporters. She said she hoped keeping a normal atmosphere on testing days and reducing the amount of “drill and kill” test prep would reduce stress for students, and maybe even for their teachers.

“Your test prep is great teaching and learning, and what you do during test day should feel like what you’re doing any other school day,” she said.

Here’s the whole report:

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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