Four Reforms Necessary to Keep TNReady

This Op-Ed ran in the Nashville Tennessean, February 23. I'll post it here for those who didn't see the link on other platforms.
Like teachers, parents, and administrators from across the Volunteer State, my head is spinning at the sudden cancellation of online assessment for TNReady.

The fact is, TNReady wasn't doomed when servers crashed this week. A warning siren screamed February 4 when PARCC, a national Common Core-based test, released a study showing that students who tested on paper scored 19% higher than those who took the same tests online.

This is a significant difference. This showed that it wasn't just Tennessee kids who weren't prepared to score well with online tests--kids across the country struggled, too.  

As Tennessee educators try to look past the failure of TNReady online testing, it's time to consider ideas that are more constructive than merely replacing online tests with bubble sheets or adopting yet another unproven testing platform.

Tennessee doesn't need more dramatic changes. It doesn't need to spend tens of millions more dollars for new tests. The state needs to take four conservative steps that save money and put students and teachers first.

1. Get data on schools by sampling, not by universal testing.  The state doesn't need to test every student to get the data it needs on schools or even teachers. Through sampling, schools carefully choose a cross-section of the student body for testing--a third of students or fewer (in larger schools)--and use these scores to measure effectiveness. This is the testing method used by countries like New Zealand and by the national NAEP test, which compares states in education, and by international benchmarks.

2.  Take the long view on online testing. The advantages of paper over online testing are significant. They cannot be ignored. But that's not to say that this gap won't close over time. Computer skills are important for success in college and career. They benefit students today. But this gap should be monitored, and online tests should not be universal until we can be sure that 90% or more of Tennessee kids can test online without lowering their chances for a high score.

3. Seek testing data with teachers and students in mind, not regulators. Like many Tennessee educators, I get a number (or a percentage) every summer that shows my effectiveness based on my students' test results. That is all. I don’t see what I taught well--or what I could improve. Teachers deserve to know three strengths they have and three areas in which they could improve. Students should earn more than a "proficient" or "below basic" stamp. They deserve to know specific skills they possess  or need to improve. The data is already there. It just isn't actionable. It is designed for regulators in Nashville and Washington, not for parents and teachers.

4. Have Tennessee colleges validate the test. The promise of the new standards adopted in 2009 was that students would be "college and career ready." While the state's colleges and universities have been outspoken in their support for rigorous standards, they need to support the statewide test by using it as a criteria of admission for community college, at least, if not state universities. This would save families the cost of the ACT, and it would show parents of students in lower grades whether or not their children are on track to qualify for college.

When it comes to learning, failure can be a far greater teacher than testing. Now is the time for Tennessee legislators and education leaders to show voters that they can learn from mistakes, too.