What We Learned – and Where We Can Improve – on Testing in Tennessee

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Today’s blog kicks off a summer series through which I want to share some of my thoughts on assessment. In my conversations with more than 10,000 teachers and parents over the past year and a half, and through the various letters and emails I’ve received, testing has been the issue about which I’ve received the most feedback – and understandably so.

If you engage in mainstream or social media for long, you may begin to believe that Tennesseans are engaged in an education debate on testing versus no testing. This is actually not the debate at all. There are very few people who would argue that no statewide check on student knowledge, skills, and standards attainment is the best direction for Tennessee. On the other hand, there are few people who believe the current assessment program in Tennessee is exactly right. Most of us are somewhere in the middle and are looking to continuously improve our testing program while not “throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

I am one of these individuals. I pledge to both create better tests aligned to Tennessee’s rigorous standards while also looking for opportunities to improve test structure, time, delivery, logistics, and scheduling. I ask that you engage with me in this conversation knowing that we are partners in this work.

IMG_1788As I’ve considered where we are and what we can do to move forward productively, I asked three questions. First, what is the goal of a new and improved test? A new test like TNReady is designed with different test questions aligned to Tennessee standards. It is meant to better show students’ ability and progress on both the breadth and depth of the content. This year’s test included questions that pointed to students’ ability to problem solve, think critically, write, and read more deeply. It was fully designed to match Tennessee’s college and career readiness standards in order to adequately measure the reality of educational outcomes for all Tennessee students.

Second, what did we accomplish this year in the midst of delivery challenges? This year, we were unable to fully provide TNReady in the way we expected: online for all third through 11th graders. Then, we were challenged to get the third through eighth grade paper tests delivered to districts. As a result, we terminated our testing vendor contract and changed accountability systems this year.

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But we accomplished a great deal – even though this test experience fell short of our expectations. Students experienced new and better test questions that set the foundation for these types of questions in years to come. We navigated challenges related to online testing that informed the department about how to better approach this transition. We learned how to better structure the testing experience to lessen the amount of time students spend testing. We created templates for better score reports to provide more detailed information for students, parents, and teachers, and these improved reports will be provided to all students in the future. This year, we will be able to provide assessment information based on what was completed: raw data from Part I for all third through eighth graders and more complete reports for students who took End of Course tests. We also re-discovered that our best way to continually improve is to listen – to our students, our educators, our parents, and our administrators.

Finally, how will we recover and what will next year look like? Our goals remain the same: ensure we have an assessment that better tests the reality of students’ content knowledge and skills, maximize instructional time, and deliver the tests as thoughtfully as possible as we move more online.

To this end, the department has already announced some changes – including eliminating Part I of math and streamlining both the math and English language arts assessments. In addition, we have committed to reducing overall testing time while working to develop tests that fit more easily into the school day – and school year. Furthermore, we are committed to phasing in online testing in a smart and reliable fashion that puts students first. I am confident that the upcoming school year will be a positive next step in meeting these goals as we continue to use standardized assessments to give us quality information for decision-making at the state, district, school, and classroom levels.

14298128634_6a4b3ca3b5_oOur internal compass is simple: our students deserve our commitment to continually improve our assessment program and work together on their behalf. Students deserve to be able to show what they know in a way that is as seamless and non-stressful as possible, and then to know how they are doing in their big-picture progress toward college and workforce readiness. Students also deserve the best instruction and rich learning experiences, rather than learning how to game questions on a test. This is what TNReady was always about and this is what we commit to achieving.

Our state assessments are not the only tests that our students experience, of course, and they serve a different but complementary purpose compared to the tests our districts and classroom teachers give. In upcoming blog posts, I will focus on what these other tests – called formative assessments – do and outline the extent of the state’s assessment system and requirements, along with what we at the department are doing to reshape that role in partnership with the state’s Assessment Task Force.

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