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:

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

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”