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Published in Print: April 15, 2015, as Educators Eager, But Anxious, as They Await Testing Rollout

Eagerness, Anxiety Await Rollout of New Tennessee Test

Alison Cotey is a first-year, 5th grade teacher at John Adams Elementary School in Kingsport, Tenn.  Cotey and her fellow Tennessee teachers are preparing their students to perform well on a looming state exam.
Alison Cotey is a first-year, 5th grade teacher at John Adams Elementary School in Kingsport, Tenn. Cotey and her fellow Tennessee teachers are preparing their students to perform well on a looming state exam.
—Shawn Poynter for Education Week
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New and veteran teachers here are trying to find solace in the fact that next school year—if everything goes according to plan—Tennessee will finally use a test aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which are already in place throughout the state.

After last year’s repeal of the common-core-aligned test developed by one of two federally funded consortia, the state reopened the bidding process to testing companies for the creation of a new state exam. It ultimately awarded North Carolina-based testing manufacturer Measurement Inc. the more-than $100 million contract last fall.

But the new test comes with its own set of challenges.

Unlike the previous test developer, which had more than three years to work with teachers across several states to design and test its exam, Measurement Inc. has less than a year before it begins field-testing its assessment this fall, ahead of statewide use next spring. The development timeline has many in the field concerned.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

“It’s really hard to create a test that has validity and really gets at what we hope it will get at,” explained Barbara Stengel, a professor of education and the director of secondary education in the department of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development in Nashville.

Ms. Stengel said that developing a good exam requires several rounds of field-testing and data collection in order to be certain it assesses and measures as it should. In her view, several months is not nearly enough time.

“We’re not going to have a good test in Tennessee next year,” Ms. Stengel said. “I just know how hard it is to come up with a really good test that actually asks what you really want to know and then is scored reliably so that performance is pretty stable.”

Emily Helphinstine, the literacy coordinator for the 7,300-student Kingsport school district, is familiar with the challenges associated with creating a strong assessment.

Ms. Helphinstine belongs to a group of teachers and administrators across the state with whom the testing company is consulting as it develops the exam and designs test questions. She was supposed to meet with the company the first week in March to provide feedback on various parts of the blueprint for the test, but the meeting was canceled due to a snowstorm that paralyzed much of the East Coast. Instead, the company sent Ms. Helphinstine part of the blueprint, on which she marked edits and suggestions; she then sent it back to the company.

‘Crazy’ Timeline

Ms. Helphinstine agreed that the testing company is working under a tight timeline, and said she expects that Measurement Inc. will have to continue tinkering with the test, even after it is administered statewide next year.

She's already begun working with teachers in Kingsport to help them prepare for the new assessments. The state education department scheduled two test training sessions for the summer, though it’s unclear whether the test will even be finalized by then.

Ms. Helphinstine and other administrators in the district’s central office have been trying to ready teachers and parents to expect a significant drop in student achievement scores as a result of both the delayed shift to common-core-aligned tests and teachers and students adjusting to the tougher standards.

Kingsport’s scores already dipped last year, when the district began transitioning to the common core but used the old state test, aligned to the previous standards. That decline in scores is likely to happen again this year, as well as next year, when students are finally tested on the more difficult standards.

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The repeal of the previous tests and the expedited timeline for Measurement Inc. is especially troubling for Kingsport’s teachers, whose salary is based in part on student test scores. The new compensation system was created by the district’s teachers, who never considered the possibility that the state would backtrack on a transition three years in the making.

Faced with the likelihood of poor performance across the state, Ms. Helphinstine is trying to focus on a potential silver lining for Kingsport: Because the district was an early adopter of the common core, its students may fare better than most. To put it another way, Kingsport’s students may account for the highest of the low scores.

Vol. 34, Issue 27, Page 16

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