Second year

Her honeymoon over as Tennessee ed chief, McQueen enters second year under the cloud of TNReady and with a mission to combat illiteracy

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen congratulates a student at Springdale Memphis Magnet School during a September visit to acknowledge the school's improved academic scores.

As Candice McQueen marked her first anniversary as Tennessee’s education commissioner in January, teachers and policymakers alike praised her ability to gracefully navigate the state’s fractious education community.

And then, the computers crashed.

Just as the state’s long-awaited TNReady test was being rolled out, a major network outage halted the state’s transition to online testing on its first day on Feb. 8. The debacle smelled of incompetence at top levels and has threatened McQueen’s sterling reputation as the right leader to fortify Tennessee’s public education system following five years of unprecedented change.

Teachers, parents and students are furious that, after considerable local investment of money and time preparing for the online assessment, the state did not hold up its part of the deal — to develop a functional test. The fury is compounded by a general perception that the State Department of Education focuses too much on tests anyway.

Even so, frustrated educators are quick to laud McQueen’s quick response after realizing that TNReady’s technical problems went beyond isolated glitches.

“There was a decisive letter written about here’s what we were going to do,” said Sue Kessler, principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville. “It wasn’t, ‘We’ll get back to you in two weeks.’ It was ‘No, I see how this didn’t work, and we’re not going to just do something that’s not working because that’s what we wanted to do.’”

While students and teachers have been significantly impacted by the TNReady failure, Kessler gives McQueen high marks for managing the crisis.

“Too often when there’s a problem, everyone wants to spend time putting spin on it and, with her, I feel like it isn’t about spin; it’s about communicating,” Kessler said.

Candice McQueen by TN.gov
PHOTO: TN.gov

Communication has been a hallmark of McQueen’s first year as commissioner — not just top-down communication but creating an environment where educators’ concerns are heard and considered.

That is antithesis of the perception of McQueen’s predecessor, Kevin Huffman, who resigned at the end of 2014 after implementing sweeping changes during his four-year tenure highlighted by Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, particularly those related to teacher evaluations that now are tied to student performance. To implement such changes, Huffman, a lawyer and former Teach For America executive originally from Ohio, faced the steady ire of teachers who complained that he was antagonistic in his dealings with educators and out of touch with Tennessee schools.

Enter McQueen, then 40, a former classroom teacher from Clarksville, Tenn., who spent most of her career training teachers at Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. While attempting to hold the line on changes ushered in by Huffman, McQueen began her tenure in January of 2015 by announcing her plan to visit every school district in Tennessee. She has steadily done just that, while also convening teacher-dominated task forces and advisory groups, and initiating personal conversations with stakeholders from students to superintendents.

Despite TNReady travails, hiccups over student test scores, the state’s generally stagnant reading levels and her commitment to controversial policies, McQueen has emerged as a shining star for stabilization to Huffman’s lightning rod for change.

"I don't always agree with her, but I absolutely love her."J.C. Bowman, Professional Educators of Tennessee

“I don’t always agree with her, but I absolutely love her,” says J.C. Bowman, who heads the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Brandi Stroeker, a teacher in Memphis for 10 years, agrees. She says the work of state education leaders typically feels remote to the work she does in her classroom, but not McQueen. “Since she’s been in office, our voice is heard more,” said Stroeker, a teacher at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, where McQueen visited last year. “Now (the department) is reaching out to us, asking us, ‘What do you need?’”

Speaking in January to education students at Lipscomb University, McQueen said building relationships has been the primary focus of her first year. She acknowledged that fast-moving changes to state education policy in the last decade have sometimes bred confusion and even contempt from educators, politicians and parents. And she enumerated some of those shifts: new standards (twice), changes in tenure, changes in teacher evaluations, the expansion of charter schools, and creation of a state-run district aimed at turning around chronically underperforming schools.

“The intensity of change in Tennessee was being felt when I entered office,” McQueen recalls. “I wanted to see how implementation was happening, and what was happening on the ground.”

During her Classroom Chronicles tour, McQueen has heard repeated concerns about new state policies, especially related to testing. Such visits have been welcomed by educators, even when they wish McQueen would loosen her stance on including student test scores in teacher evaluations.

“She’s going across the state; she sees what’s actually happening,” Kessler said. “I think if I were to call her today, … she’s probably outside in some schools talking to some kids. That speaks volumes to me.”

Concerned about complaints of over-testing, McQueen created a task force last March to study the issue. Comprised of teachers, principals, researchers, elected officials and a high school student, the group recommended working with districts to limit standardized tests throughout the year and publicly releasing past standardized test questions in order to increase testing transparency. Nearly all of the panel’s recommendations are in the process of being implemented, either through the governor’s proposed budget or bills winding through the state legislature.

Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative for Reforming Education, said the task force set the tone for McQueen’s leadership style. “She brought together not just a departmental team but, from students to teachers to partners in the work, those who she knew would have valuable perspective,” Woodson said.

McQueen also learned from communication missteps, like when the State Department of Education failed last summer to communicate a change in how students’ scores on end-of-year tests were calculated. She has tried to increase communication to districts and principals and in January launched “McQueen Minutes,” brief video updates on the department’s work.

Her greatest communication tool, she said, has been the development of a five-year strategic plan outlining the department’s priorities for Tennessee’s schools, including district empowerment, postsecondary achievement, limiting achievement gaps and literacy. The plan was influenced by feedback during her “listening tour” and from superintendents across Tennessee.

“I knew immediately, when you think about the length of Tennessee and the number of districts we have, you have to create something that brings them together and aligns them around the same work,” McQueen said.

Kingsport City School Superintendent Lyle Ailshie says the strategic plan has set McQueen apart from any other commissioner he’s worked with.

“I remember clearly when she spoke to (the state’s superintendents) the first time as an entire group, and she laid out her five priority areas and how ‘all means all,’ and what we need to reach into our classrooms,” he said. “She really asked for feedback and took the time to say, ‘Hey, send me suggestions, not only today, but any time.’”

McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam listen during a meeting of the governor's teachers cabinet.
McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam listen during a meeting of the governor’s Teachers Cabinet.

READ OUR CHALK TALK Q&A WITH MCQUEEN AS SHE BEGAN HER JOB IN JANUARY 2015.


If McQueen’s focus on listening is what defined her first year, her focus on literacy is likely to define her second. This week, Gov. Bill Haslam, who appointed McQueen, will launch the state’s expansive $9 million literacy initiative that addresses a broad swath of Tennessee students, from infants to adults. McQueen has called Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores “a true ethical and moral dilemma.”

Improving the reading skills of Tennessee students is one of McQueen’s top priorities for 2016. Others include the transition to the state’s TNReady test and supporting teachers during the rollout of revised math and English standards. She’ll also keep a close eye on what’s going on in schools by dispatching the department’s senior leadership team to shadow high school students.

“We will improve student outcomes. … We will get more students to college,” she said. “We will continue to improve in our national rankings on the National Report Card, based on the improvements I know we will make on closing achievement gaps, and increasing growth for those who are farthest behind, particularly in the area of reading.”

“Why do I know we will do this? Because I’ve been around the state,” she told the Lipscomb students. “I’ve been in your classrooms, and I’ve been in your schools, and I’ve been in your communities.”

 

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.

failing grade

Why one Harvard professor calls American schools’ focus on testing a ‘charade’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Harvard professor Daniel Koretz is on a mission: to convince policymakers that standardized tests have been widely misused.

In his new book, “The Testing Charade,” Koretz argues that federal education policy over the last couple of decades — starting with No Child Left Behind, and continuing with the Obama administration’s push to evaluate teachers in part by test scores — has been a barely mitigated disaster.

The focus on testing in particular has hurt schools and students, Koretz argues. Meanwhile, Koretz says the tests are of little help for accurately identifying which schools are struggling because excessive test prep inflates students’ scores.

“Neither good intentions nor the value of well-used tests justifies continuing to ignore the absurdities and failures of the current system and the real harms it is causing,” Koretz writes in the book’s first chapter.

Daniel Koretz, Harvard Graduate School of Education

His skepticism will be welcome to families of students who have opted out of state tests across the country and others who have led a testing backlash in recent years. That sentiment helped shape the new federal education law, ESSA.

Koretz has another set of allies in some conservative charter and voucher advocates, including — to an extent — Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who criticized No Child Left Behind in a recent speech. “As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects,” she said. “Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.”

But national civil rights groups and some Democratic politicians have made a different case: That it’s the government’s responsibility to continue to use test scores to hold schools accountable for serving their students, especially students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities. (ESSA continues to require testing in grades three through eight and for states to identify their lowest performing schools, largely by using test scores.)

We talked to Koretz about his book and asked him to explain how he reached his conclusions and what to make of research that paints a more positive picture of tests and No Child Left Behind.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you want to walk me through the central thesis of your book?

The reason I wrote the book is really the subtitle: we’re “pretending to make schools better.”

Most of the bad news that’s in this book is old news. We’ve been collecting evidence of various kinds about the impact of the very heavy handed, high-stakes testing that we use in this country for a long time. I lost patience with people pretending that these facts aren’t present. So I decided it would be worth writing a book that summarizes the evidence both good and bad about the effects of test-based accountability. When you do that, you end up with an awful lot on the bad side and not very much on the good side.

Can you talk about some of the bad effects?

There are a few that are particularly important. One is absolutely rampant bad test prep. It’s just everywhere. One of the consequences of that is that test scores are often very badly inflated.

There aren’t all that many studies of this because it’s not really a welcome suggestion. When you go to the superintendent and say, “Gee, I’d like to see whether your scores are inflated,” they rarely say, “Boy, we’ve been waiting for you to show up.” There aren’t that many studies, but they’re very consistent. The inflation that does show up is sometimes absolutely massive. Worse, there is growing evidence that that problem is more severe for disadvantaged kids, creating the illusion of improved equity.

Another is increasingly widespread cheating. We, of course, will never know just how widespread because there aren’t resources to examine the data from 13,000 school districts. Everyone knows about Atlanta, a few people know about El Paso, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s obviously also — and perhaps this should be on the same par — enormous amounts of stress for teachers, for kids, and for parents. That’s the bad side.

I want to ask a little more about test score inflation. What is the strongest evidence for inflation? And let me give you two pieces that to me seem like potentially countervailing evidence. One piece is when I’m looking at research on school turnaround — like the most recent School Improvement Grant program and also turnaround efforts in New York City — these schools have been under intensive pressure to raise test scores. And yet their test scores gains on high-stakes tests have been pretty modest at best. The other example is the Smarter Balanced exam. The scores on the Smarter Balanced exam don’t seem to be going up. If anything, they’re going down.

The main issue is that score inflation doesn’t occur in the same amount everywhere. You’ve come up with two examples where there is apparently very little. There are other examples that are much worse than the aggregate data suggest.

In the case of Smarter Balanced, I would wait and see. Score inflation can only occur when people become sufficiently aware of predictable patterns in the test. You can’t game a test when you don’t know what irrelevant things are going to recur, and that just may take some time.

I’m wondering your take on why some of the strongest advocates for test-based accountability have been national civil rights groups.

One of the rationales for some of the most draconian test-based accountability programs we’ve had has been to improve equity. If you got back to the enactment of NCLB, you had [then-Massachusetts Sen.] Teddy Kennedy and [then-California Rep.] George Miller actively lobbying their colleagues in support of a Republican bill. George Miller summed that up in one sentence in a meeting I went to. He said, “It will shed some light in the corners.” He said that schools had been getting away with giving lousy services to disadvantaged kids by showing good performance among advantaged kids, and this would make it in theory impossible to do that.

Even going back before NCLB, I think that’s why there was so much support in the disability community for including disabled kids in test-based accountability in the 1990s — so they couldn’t be hidden away in the basement anymore. I think that’s absolutely laudable. It’s the thing I praise the most strongly about NCLB.

It just didn’t work. That’s really clear from the evidence.

I think the intention was laudable and I think the intention was why high-stakes testing has gotten so much support in the minority community, but it just has failed.

You mention in your book probably the most widely cited study on the achievement effects of No Child Left Behind, showing that there were big gains in fourth grade math and some gains in eighth grade math, but there wasn’t anything good or bad in reading.

Pretty much. There was a little bit of improvement in some years in reading but nothing to write home about.

So the math gains — and that was on the low-stakes federal NAEP test — they’re just not worth it in your view?

I think the gains are real. But there are some reasons not be terribly excited about these. One is that they don’t persist. They decline a little bit by eighth grade, they disappear by the time kids are out of high school. We don’t have good data about kids as they graduate from high school, but what we do have doesn’t show any improvement.

The biggest reason I’m not as excited as some people are about those gains is we’ve had evidence going back to the 1980s that one of the responses that teachers have had to test-based accountability is to take time out of untested subjects and to put it into math and reading. We don’t know how much of that gain in math is because people are teaching math better and how much is because kids aren’t learning about civics.

That’s, in my view, not enough to justify all of the stuff on the other side of the ledger.

When I’ve looked at some studies on the impact of NCLB on students’ social-emotional skills, the impact on teachers’ attitudes in the classrooms, and the impact on voluntary teacher turnover, they haven’t found any negative effects. They also haven’t found positive effects in most cases. But that would seem to at least in one sense undermine the argument that NCLB had big harmful effects on these other outcomes.

I haven’t seen those studies, but I don’t think what you describe does undermine it. What I would like to see is an analysis of long-term trends not just on teacher attrition but on teacher selection. A lot of what I have heard has really been, frankly, anecdotal. I was once a public school teacher and teaching now is utterly unlike what it was when I taught. It seems unlikely that that had no effect on who opts in and who opts out to be a teacher.

I don’t have evidence of this but I suspect that to some extent different types of people are selecting into teaching now than were teaching 30 years ago.

Can you talk about what you see as good versus bad test prep?

Something that Audrey Qualls at the University of Iowa said was, “A student has only mastered something if she can do it when confronted with unfamiliar particulars.”

Think about training pilots — you would never train pilots by putting them in a simulator and then always running exactly the same set of conditions because next time you were in the plane and the conditions were different you’d die. What you want to know is that the pilot has enough understanding and a good enough command of the physical motions and whatnot that he or she can respond to whatever happens to you while you’re up there. That’s not all that distant an analogy from testing.

Bad test prep is test prep that is designed to raise scores on the particular test rather than give kids the underlying knowledge and skills that the test is supposed to capture. It’s absolutely endemic. In fact, districts and states peddle this stuff themselves.

I take it it’s very hard to quantify this test prep phenomenon, though?

It is extremely hard, and there’s a big hole in the research in this area.

Let’s turn from a backward-looking to a forward-looking discussion. What is your take on ESSA? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction?

This may be a little bit simplistic, but I think of ESSA as giving states back a portion of the flexibility they had before No Child Left Behind. It doesn’t give them as much flexibility as they had in 2000.  

It has the potential to substantially reduce pressure, but it doesn’t seem to be changing the basic logic of the system, which is that the thing that will drive school improvement is pushing people to improve test scores. So I’m not optimistic.

One of things that I argue very strongly at the end of the book is that we need to look at a far broader range of, not just outcomes, but aspects of schooling to create an accountability system that will generate more of what we want. ESSA takes one tiny step in that direction: it says you have to have one measure beyond testing and graduation rates. But if you read the statute it almost doesn’t matter what that measure is. The one mandate is that it can’t count as much as test scores — that’s written in the statute. The notion that it means the same thing to monitor the quality of practice or to monitor attendance rates is just absurd

As I’m sure you know, research — including from some of your colleagues at Harvard — has shown that so-called “no-excuses” charter schools in places like Boston, Chicago, and New York City, have led to substantial test score gains and in some cases improvements in four-year college enrollment. Are you skeptical that those gains are the result of genuine learning?

It depends on which test you’re talking about. Some of the no-excuses charter schools drill kids on the state test, so I don’t trust the state test scores for some of those schools. I think it’s entirely plausible that some of those schools are going to affect long-term outcomes because they’re in some cases replacing a very disorderly environment with a very orderly one. In fact, I would say too orderly by quite a margin.

But those reforms are much bigger than just test-based accountability or just the control structure we call charters. It’s a whole host of different things that are going on: different disciplinary policies, different kinds of teacher selection, different kinds of behavioral requirements, all sorts of things.

A lot of the discussion around accountability, including in your book, is about the measures we should be using to identify schools. I’m interested in your take on what happens when a school is identified by whatever system — perhaps by the holistic system you described in the book — as low performing.

The first step is to figure out why is it bad. I would use scores as an opening to a better evaluation of schools. If scores on a good test are low, something is wrong, but we don’t know what. Before we intervene we ought to find out what’s wrong.

This is the Dutch model: school inspections are concentrated on schools that shows signs of having problems, because that’s where the payoff is. I would want to know what’s wrong and then you can design an alternative. In some cases, it may be the teaching staff is too weak. It may be in some cases the teaching staff needs supports they don’t have. It may be like in the case of Baltimore, they need to turn the heat on. Who knows? But I don’t think we can design sensible interventions until we know what the problems are.