Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Tennessee Adopts New Accountability System to Deal with the Fact It Doesn't Have Valid Test Scores, But Does It Need a Federal Waiver?

This Spring has been unusually stressful for the Tennessee education system and its officials. Standardized tests are normally stressful for students and their teachers, particularly when the test are high stakes.  This year, they became stressful for high ranking officials. For weeks, the system basically crashed or malfunctioned.  The problems were so severe and ongoing that they eventually invalidating the results of the tests. In a bygone era, this would have amounted to nothing more than a waste of time and money.  In today's world, it meant huge legal problems.  Without valid test results, how could the state run is federal accountability system that requires it to rate schools, identify those in need of intervention, and report back to Washington?

Tennessee just came up with its solution.  Chalkbeat Tennessee reports that the state has tossed out its A-F grading system for schools--the system that the US Department of Education previously accepted as a proper plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Now the state Education Department has come up with a different approach to help parents and communities understand how their schools performed in 2017-18.

The state will rate each school on a scale of 0-4 on six different performance indicators. And in a major concession to local district leaders, schools won’t receive a single overall grade or rating as initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the change complies with a new state law ordering that this year’s TNReady scores “shall not be used to assign a letter grade to a school” — a nod to concerns that the test results may be unreliable. She believes it also complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, the 2015 federal law that requires every state to adopt a rating system that distinguishes each of its schools in a meaningful way.   

McQueen’s approach is drawing mostly praise from education leaders and groups, even as some wonder whether a numeric system will provide the simplicity and clarity of one that grades schools on an A-F scale.

“I give the department credit for going much further than I thought they could or would based on the TNReady law. They were very creative and ambitious,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, which seeks to improve education quality for students of color.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says the numeric system “is not ideal, but it does allow for some accountability and fulfills our requirement” under ESSA.

Federal officials are expected to approve the numeric rating concept and a few other revisions on Tennessee’s updated ESSA plan shared last month with the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen recently told the task force advising her on testing matters that the numeric system will still provide useful information about how schools are doing in areas such as chronic absenteeism; out-of-school suspensions; student readiness for college, career and the military; and a variety of student achievement and growth data. The indicators are meant to give families a fuller picture of school performance than test scores alone.

I hate to throw cold water on the plan.  It seems like a good one.  But it is not clear to me how it complies with ESSA.  Under ESSA, states must identify those schools performing in the bottom 5% of their accountability system and then intervene with evidence based solutions.  They are also supposed to examine school funding to determine if that played any role in the low performance.

In Abandoning the Federal Role in Education: The Every Student Succeeds Act, I explain and critique the complexities of these rating systems. Basically, a state can take as many different school quality factors as it wants so long as student achievement measures are a substantial factor and collectively counts more than the others.  These vague outlines are problematic.  While states were to reduce schools to a single rating and rank schools across the state, parents would have no way of knowing what these ratings actually represent.  And almost no one in the state could reasonably predict how schools would fall out each year.

The problem with Tennessee's new plan is that it would not seem to reduce schools to a singular rating that would allow it to rank all the schools in the state.  If it can't rank them, then how can it identify those in the bottom 5%?  If it cant do that, how can it properly intervene in schools? I suppose Tennessee could intervene in schools that are in the bottom 5 percent of each of the data points it does have, but that seems problematic because intervention is not to be based on a single factor.  To be clear, intervention is not required for a few years, but this might even complicate the system more.  Either Tennessee will just ignore the results from the first year, which would not seem to be allowed, or it would have to try to figure out how to combine this year's results with the hopefully valid results next year.  But this involve not just comparing apples and oranges, but combining them into a single fruit.

Again, Tennessee's new plan makes sense of this year.  And to be frank, the state doesn't really have any other options.  Rather than reducing schools to a single measure, they will separate out the factors.  This will actually make sense to the average Joe.  Joe will understand what a school excels in or doesn't.  Joe won't be mislead by an overall score. But Joe will be missing that key achievement data that was required to be part of the system.  

If I were the U.S. Secretary, I would give Tennessee a waiver to operate this new plan, but the point is that it seems to me that Tennessee may need one.  And, of course, my opinion and a few quarters won't buy a cup of coffee, much less a waiver.



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