It was just after 9 a.m. on a Monday morning when Lori Smith, the associate principal at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Kingsport, received a text from her sister, the instructional technology coordinator for the 5,500-student Monroe County school system.
Schools in Monroe and several other districts across Tennessee had begun administering the first round of the state’s new tests, which students were taking on computers.
“She messaged me and asked how things were going,” Smith recalled. “I told her we had done a test on our technology, and things were going well. Apparently, they weren’t going well for her.”
What neither of them knew at the time was that all across the Volunteer State the testing technology was breaking down.
Kingsport was planning to begin testing the following day, and Smith had done everything she could think of to prepare her teachers and students. She had met with teachers to go over procedures and reassure them that they were as prepared as they could possibly be. She had organized all their testing paperwork and separated it with colorful tabs.
“I knew this was new for them, and I wanted it to be very spelled out,” Smith said.
That afternoon she talked to her 5th graders about the test.
“I reminded them that if things mess up . . . it’s going to be OK,” Smith said. “I told them, ‘We will get you another device and it will be OK. We are all in this together.’”
After the last bell sounded and students headed home, Smith stayed late to oversee a professional development session, while teachers from grades 3 through 5 logged on to the school’s Google Chromebooks to ensure that the online testing platform was cooperating. It was.
During the professional development sessions, Smith ran into one of the school’s technology coordinators.
“He said there had been a conference call [about the tests] earlier that day and that it was pretty brutal,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is not sounding good.’”
At 5:51 p.m., Smith packed up her things and headed home, still feeling positive about the next day’s testing schedule.
“We were totally ready to roll and I felt like a million bucks when I left school,” she said.
But exactly an hour later, at 6:51 p.m., an email reached her inbox: The online test was canceled, and the entire state would instead administer a paper test to be given on a yet-to-be-determined date.
“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, and that everything we’ve done all year and everything we’ve prepped for was taken away,” Smith said.
Kingsport, the Believer
The setback, though meant to be temporary, dealt a significant blow to the state and the school district, both of which are considered leaders in the Obama administration’s reform efforts since 2009.
For about a dozen states, including Tennessee, dramatic overhaul began with the administration’s signature competitive grant, Race to the Top, which offered states a piece of a $4.35 billion pie in exchange for adopting a range of significant education policy changes.
As one of the first Race to the Top winners, Tennessee led the charge in revamping its K-12 system. And within the state, Kingsport stood at the ready, doing anything and everything the state asked of its districts.
Kingsport schools have always been high-achieving—consistently ranking among the top 10 in the state and boasting ACT scores that exceed state and national averages, as well as Advanced Placement participation rates and scores among the highest in the state. The district is bolstered by the $9 billion Eastman Chemical Company, a sprawling plastics plant that drives the economy of the sleepy working-class city.
The ditching of the online exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards is just the latest in a series of significant testing alterations that have rocked Tennessee over the last three-plus years and made it a poster child for the volatile testing atmosphere that’s sweeping the country.
That volatility has upset morale and induced anxiety among teachers and students, who are now, once again, worried about what to expect next.
“It’s just unsettling because there have been so many changes,” said Sunshine Light, a 7th grade math teacher at Ross N. Robinson Middle School in Kingsport. “You talk yourself up, work yourself up, and do what has to be done, and now once again in the middle of the game we’re changing the rules. Can you imagine if in the middle of the Super Bowl there was a new rule?”
This latest change—the most abrupt to date—was the result of a near-systemwide outage of Measurement Inc.’s online testing platform. (The Durham, N.C.-based testing company won the $108 million contract in November 2014 to design a replacement for Tennessee’s state test, known as the TCAP.)
“Despite the many improvements the department has helped to make to the system in recent months ... we are not confident in the system’s ability to perform consistently,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement after the technology failed.
Reverting to Paper Exams
The testing company is currently printing thousands of paper exams that it will ship to districts in the coming weeks; students will take the tests with No. 2 pencils instead of clicking a mouse.
The decision is particularly painful for Kingsport because for the first time in three years students were going to be taking tests directly aligned to what and how they’ve been learning—a monumental moment for teachers whose evaluations and compensation are based in part on students’ test scores.
“Finally we’re no longer serving two masters,” Light said prior to the testing snafu.
Since 2012, teachers have been using Tennessee’s version of the Common Core State Standards, while simultaneously preparing students for a state test still aligned to the state’s old standards.
Despite the setback, students will still only be taking tests aligned to the current common core academic benchmarks.
“We have to remember that, honestly, it does not impact that hard work we’ve done,” said Light. “The only thing that’s changing is the modality.”
Still, she added, “it feels like a massive decision that’s been made in the middle of the game.”
“We are a high-performing district, and I hope we always will be,” said school Superintendent Lyle Ailshie. “We don’t want to rest on our laurels or think we have everything figured out. We can always improve and, like all systems, we always want to do more for minorities and low-income students.”
So when Tennessee’s education department said, “Jump,” Kingsport asked how high—and then jumped higher.
It began using the Common Core State Standards a year before the state required it of districts. It was one of the first to revamp its teacher evaluations, and it went a step further, tying those evaluations to a new compensation model designed by teachers themselves. And in preparation for the new common-core-aligned tests, it held training sessions on top of those that the state provided.
By the 2014-15 school year, the state was finally set to use its new common-core-aligned test, designed under the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.
But amid political pushback from both the right and the left, aimed largely at the common core, Tennessee’s legislature pressed the pause button, a move that all but pulled the rug out from under Kingsport.
The state dropped the PARCC exam altogether and launched a review of its common core standards. That left teachers and students in districts like Kingsport in limbo, forcing them to use the old state test, which wasn’t aligned to the standards they had been using, but would be used to evaluate teachers and impact their pay.
“That was the most frustrating part,” said Ailshie, who credits the district’s success to its nearly 600 teachers and administrators who have trusted the direction of the state and district’s education officials and have worked so hard to adjust to reforms. “You feel for your teachers.”
Under Kingsport’s compensation system, teachers are eligible for pay raises and bonuses based in part on student performance. The last-minute testing change, however, resulted in largely anticipated flat scores, which meant few teachers scored boosts in pay.
“But we’re going to hold our heads up and continue on because we really believe that once our curriculum is aligned, we will be truly rewarded,” Ailshie said after districts’ scores were released last summer.
Kingsport, the Stoic
Kingsport was supposed to be getting its first taste of that alignment right now by administering its first common-core-aligned tests.
Scrapping the online tests means that teachers and students will have to wait a couple of more weeks. Although there is still a sense of relief that lessons and tests will finally match, it won’t make the testing any less stressful, even for a teaching corps in which more than 70 percent of teachers and administrators have advanced degrees.
“The biggest thing is making sure our teachers feel supported and easing their fears about the unknown,” said Brian Partin, the principal of Ross N. Robinson Middle School, who’s been an administrator for 13 years and is slated to lead the National Association of Elementary School Principals after this school year. “It’s all about staying the course and helping them understand we’re providing them with all the best practices and we’re confident that everyone is doing what they need to do to support the children’s growth.”
Even for someone like Sunshine Light, a 7th grade math teacher at Ross N. Robinson Middle School in Kingsport who was hand-picked by the state to be one of its 700 common core coaches, the transition to a more rigorous exam is nerve-wracking, because of how it will impact her evaluation and pay, and, even more, because of how it may impact her students’ confidence.
“This is a huge undertaking that’s been several years in the making, so why are we having these problems?” asked Light about the technical difficulties. “The kids are going to be anxious. I know teachers are anxious. I’m anxious.”
Partin said, “I feel good about the work our teachers are doing, and I feel confident in the support and training our district is providing.” At the same time, he said, “everyone is anticipating there will be a dip in scores.”
Prior to the testing change, Light, Partin and others said most of the anxiety was driven by the fact that students were going to be taking the new exam exclusively on computers.
Indeed, according to a new analysis from Education Week, students who took the PARCC tests on computers last year tended to score lower than those who took the tests on paper.
And while teachers were originally nervous because of the new online platform, they’re now nervous because that’s all they’ve let students practice with all year.
“When you’re used to working with these kids, and you know what they’re capable of, sometimes a test like this paints a false portrait of what they do on a daily basis,” Partin said. “And that’s the part that can be discouraging for teachers.”
Kingsport, the Committed
Teachers and principals credit Kingsport’s district office with making an otherwise maddening process somewhat more tolerable.
“There is always an open line of communication with my superiors within the district,” said Light. “I would have no problem sending an email to the director of schools to voice a concern or share something great that happened. And I feel that there is a personal relationship with all of the staff that you don’t find other places.”
Partin said he knows from his perch at the national principals’ association how lucky he is to be working in a district like Kingsport. That’s especially true, he said, when it comes to training and support.
Tennessee spent more of its Race to the Top winnings on common-core training sessions than any other state. But Kingsport has doubled down on that, spending millions of its own money on additional training sessions, especially after the state’s competition coffers ran dry.
“They really do provide us with quality professional development,” agreed Smith, who taught elementary school for more than a decade before becoming an associate principal. “It’s almost like I have a whole new college degree.”
Kingsport isn’t like most other districts in the state, where many of the tumultuous education policy changes of the last seven years have sparked frustration and resistance.
As Carrie Upshaw, the president of Kingsport’s board of education said sarcastically during the convocation celebration before the school year started last August, “We can survive whatever achievement autopsies and standardized tests that come our way, and we can get through the ‘Road to Insanity.’”
Kingsport and other districts in the state may be on that road to insanity for a bit longer.
In the midst of the pushback to the common core, the state legislature assigned a committee to review its academic benchmarks and suggest changes. Those recommendations—though minimal—are currently before the legislature, which is expected to adopt them.
Should that happen, the state’s common-core test would have to be altered yet again to ensure it’s properly aligned.
Other changes could reverse some stress, however.
The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed in December, rolls back the policy footprint of the federal government. It hands states more control over things like accountability, testing, standards, and teacher evaluations. For example, while the law keeps in place the annual testing requirement, it allows states to use the results however they want in a new accountability system of their own design.
Such a swing of the pendulum, intended to lessen the pressure of year-end exams, has many in education, including teachers, breathing a sigh of relief.
Implementation of the new law isn’t expected to take place until the 2017-18 school year, however, and Kingsport has no plans to change its current evaluation system— though it does plan to keep refining its compensation system by creating new avenues and career paths that will allow teachers to earn more.
“I’m hopeful in thinking that it will relieve a little bit of the stress and focus more on the whole child,” said Partin. “Because it’s not just about coming and preparing for an assessment. We’re preparing these kids for life.”
This article and the accompanying story were produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and written by former Education Week Staff Writer Lauren Camera.
An alternative version of this story appeared as “Tennessee District Perseveres Amid Online Testing Woes” in the March 9, 2016 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Tennessee District Perseveres Amid Online-Testing Woes