To our readers

Hey, we heard you. You had a lot of questions about TNReady. We found answers.

The news that Tennessee’s testing company scored some high school tests incorrectly this year uncorked a flood of questions about the validity of the state’s new standardized assessment.


Here are five things to know about the latest brouhaha over TNReady


We wanted to know how the brouhaha was impacting classrooms, so we asked our readers on Facebook.

You responded in droves.

We took your top concerns directly to the state Department of Education and asked for answers. Here’s what you wanted to know — and what we have learned:

Several readers asked why they should trust TNReady results, given the series of setbacks in the test’s first two years.

  • “I do not trust the results. We have had so many problems in the last few years, that I am suspicious of any results we do get. It bothers me greatly that the state uses these numbers to hold students and teachers and districts accountable, but they seem to be unable to deliver scores they believe are accurate in a timely manner.” —Rebecca Dickenson
  • “I no longer trust the accountability of the state nor its methods. My concern is if there is a teacher who has only one year of test data, how is it the same teacher shown multi-year growth when he or she had only last year of testing? This poses a huge concern.” —Mildred Williams  

Tennessee Department of Education: “TNReady is fully aligned to Tennessee’s academic standards, and every question has been reviewed, edited, and approved by Tennessee teachers through a rigorous review process. We also have quantitative checks and processes after a test is over to ensure student responses are reliable. While more than 99.9% of TNReady tests were scored accurately this year, we want to improve on that next year, and our vendor (Questar) is taking new quality assurance steps to make sure their programming is error-free. Also, this year, as soon as the scoring error on some of the English I, II and Integrated Math II EOCs was identified, scores were updated and all TNReady tests were re-reviewed and verified for full accuracy.”

Some teachers told us that, given the delay in score deliveries this spring, many students don’t think the results will arrive in time to affect their final grades next spring. Those teachers are struggling to get their students to buy in.

  • “After two years of TNReady, it still hasn’t counted for my students. Going into year three, I will once again tell them with a hopeful, straight face that it will count as part of their report card grades and implore them to try their best. I quietly wonder what reason they have to believe me, given recent history.” —Mike Stein
  • “I struggle to get students to buy in to the importance of trying their best on state tests because the students are confident that the scores won’t come back in time to affect their grades (which has been the situation for several years now). The students see zero incentive for doing well.” —Nicole Mayfield

TDOE: “We believe that if districts and schools set the tone that performing your best on TNReady is important, then students will take the test seriously, regardless of whether TNReady factors into their grade. We should be able to expect our students will try and do their best at any academic exercise, whether or not it is graded. This is a value that is established through local communication from educators and leaders, and it will always be key to our test administration. We believe that when we share these messages and values celebrating the variety of accomplishments our students have made, taking advantage of TNReady’s scheduling flexibility to minimize disruption, focusing on strong standards-based instruction every day, sending positive messages around the importance of the variety of tests that students take, and sharing that students should always do their best then students will buy-in and TNReady will be successful.”

Other teachers asked what happens to writing scores for tests in English language arts.

  • “I can tell you that two years ago — when we first piloted the new writing test online — districts received not only every student’s scores (broken down by each of the four indicators) but also the actual student responses to each prompt. In my former district our supervisor shared them, and we analyzed them as a department. If you check with your principal, VP, or supervisors, there are some published “anchor papers” with scores available on edtools from this past year. It’s not a lot, but it’s more than we’ve had in the past. My hope is that if online continues, we’ll keep seeing the student responses in the future.” —Wj Gillespie II

TDOE: “The question appears to be referencing the process we had through the 2014-15 school year, when our writing assessment was separate. Since 2015-16, students’ writing responses on TNReady have been incorporated as part of their overall ELA score. Responses are scored based on our writing rubrics, and for educators, we have provided access to the “anchor papers” from the 2016-17 year, so they can see how students’ responses were scored based on the writing rubric, which can help them inform the feedback they give their students.”

On that same issue of writing scores, one teacher referenced the hiring of scorers off of Craigslist. We asked the state if that’s true.

  • “I continue to be curious about our ELA writing scores. Each year we are required to use state writing rubrics, attend PD related to the state’s four types of writing, etc etc…and yet our scores never come back. Students spend hours taking the writing portion of the test, scorers are hired off Craig’s list…, and yet we never actually get the scores back. It seems like every year this is swept under the rug. Where do these writing tests go?” —Elizabeth Faison Clifton

TDOE: “Questar does not use Craigslist. Several years ago, another assessment company supposedly posted advertisements on Craigslist, but Questar does not. We provide opportunities for our educators to be involved in developing our test, and we also encourage Tennessee teachers to apply to hand-score TNReady. To be eligible, each applicant must provide proof of a four-year college degree, and preference is given to classroom teachers. As part of the interview process, an applicant would have to hand-score several items for review and evaluation. Once hired, each scorer is trained based on materials that Tennessee teachers and the department approve — and which are assembled from responses given by Tennessee students on the exam — and scorers are regularly refreshed and “recalibrated” on scoring guidelines. Each writing response is scored at least twice; if those two responses differ significantly, they are sent to a third scorer. Each day, the department reads behind a sample of essays to ensure hand-scorers are adhering to the criteria set by our teachers. Any scores that do not align are thrown out, and those scorers are retrained. Any scorer who does not meet our and Questar’s standards is released from scoring TNReady.”

Finally, readers expressed a lot of concern about the complexity behind growth scores known as TVAAS, which are based on TNReady results and which go into teachers’ evaluations. We asked the state for a simple explanation.

  • “What formula is used in calculating the overall score for TVAAS when fallacies were determined as a result? My performance is weighed heavily on the state TVAAS score which is why this type of error has occurred before. This is quite disturbing. Teachers work tirelessly to ensure student achievement is a success; however, testing to measure performance seems to not be working.” —Mildred Williams  
  • “No one can give me the formula for how my students’ scores are calculated to create my score in TVAAS. How is (t)hat transparency? Yet, I’m required, constantly, to “prove” myself with documentation of education, observations, professional development and the like; all in originals, of course, to numerous overseeing bodies.” —Rachel Bernstein Kannady
  • “I find it ludicrous that data from these tests are used to evaluate MY performance when I get little to no control over most of the variables regarding the test. How could a miscalculated, misinformed, and (for all I know) incomprehensible test demonstrate what my students have learned!? And don’t even get me started on that fact that the rigor of the tests was increased ten-fold, yet not scaffolded in.” —Nicole Mayfield

TDOE: “TVAAS is statistically valid and reliable, and we follow the recommendations outlined by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on value-added measures. Conceptually, TVAAS looks at how students have performed historically on TCAP and TNReady and compares their performance to their peers who have had similar past performance. If students tended to grow at about the same rate as their peers across the state — the expected amount of growth — they would earn a 3. If students tended to grow faster than their peers, they would earn a 4 or a 5, depending on the amount of progress they showed. If they tended to not show as much growth as their peers, they would earn a 1 or a 2. The model itself is sophisticated and complex to be as fair and nuanced as possible for each teacher’s situation, and we are working with our educator preparation providers as well as district leaders to provide more training on specifically how the model calculates scores. Tennessee educators also have access to a TVAAS user support team that can answer any specific questions about their TVAAS data, including how the data was analyzed.

Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions — and that is what we saw this year. Students can still grow, even if their overall proficiency level is now different. You can think about it like a running race. If you used to finish a 5K at about the same time as 10 other students, and all 10 students made the same shift to a new race at the same time with the same amount of time to prepare, you should finish the new race at about the same time. If you finished ahead of the group’s average time, you grew faster than your peers. If you lagged behind everyone, that would indicate you did not grow as much as was expected.  Because students’ performance will be compared to the performance of their peers and because their peers are making the transition at the same time, drops in statewide proficiency rates resulting from increased rigor of the new assessments had no impact on the ability of teachers, schools, and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores. Transitions to higher standards and expectations do not change the fact that we still want all students in a district to make a full year’s worth of growth, relative to their peers who are all experiencing the same transition.”

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.