The School Board’s Fight Against Using Student Assessment Data

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Next week’s meeting of the Knox County school board figures to provide an acid test of whether it has morphed into a body that is of, by, and for teachers.

At issue is a resolution sponsored by board member Amber Rountree that gives the back of the hand to the state Department of Education. Specifically, it opposes the use of the state’s student  assessment data “for any percentage of teacher evaluations and student grades for school year 2016-2017 and urges the General Assembly and the State Board of Education to provide a one year waiver” on such use.

Rountree and the board’s newly elected chair, Patti Bounds, have been the board’s harshest critics of what they’ve deemed to be excessive emphasis on standardized testing. And they have championed the cause of teachers who have rebelled against the use of data derived from these tests in evaluating teacher performance.

Now, they are joined on the nine-member board by three newly elected members (Susan Horn, Tony Norman, and Jennifer Owen) who are also former teachers and were aligned with them in opposition to the assertedly oppressive administration of former Superintendent Jim McIntyre. Only the two remaining members who don’t come from the teacher ranks (Gloria Deathridge and Lynne Fugate) were supportive of McIntyre while the other two holdovers (Terry Hill and Mike McMillan) usually opposed him.

Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas attempted to derail Rountree’s resolution when it was first considered at the board’s monthly meeting in early October.

In an email to board members, Thomas asserted that, “We need a good standardized test each year to tell us how we are doing compared to others across the state and the nation. We will achieve greatness not by shying away from this accountability but by embracing it.” And he fretted that, “This resolution puts that at risk. In short, it will divide us. Once again we could find ourselves in two disputing camps. The pro-achievement folks on the one side and the pro-teacher folks on the other.”

But some of Thomas’ reasoning didn’t resonate well with many board members. For starters, he asserted that, “The politics are wrong”—claiming the resolution would offend state legislators, especially the Chairman of the House Education Committee, Knoxville’s Harry Brooks. To which Bounds retorted, “Since when have we let politics dictate what is good for our children?”

Thomas also stumbled when he claimed that Tennessee has met all of the American Educational Research Association’s criteria for deriving teacher “value-added” scores from their student achievement gains from year to year relative to a norm.

In fact, an AERA report cited by Rountree on the use of value-added measures of teacher performance admonishes that, “VAM scores must only be calculated from scores on tests that are comparable over time. Many states are currently transitioning to new assessment systems and adopting new or revised performance standards that pose a threat to the validity of VAM scores when these scores are compared before, across, and after the transition.”

Of course, that’s exactly what’s happening in Tennessee as totally new TNReady tests are being introduced in grades 3-8 this school year to succeed the former TCAP tests that were due to be replaced last year. Compounding the problem, all testing in these grades was suspended in 2016 when the supplier of the new tests failed to deliver them on time.

This debacle not only precluded calculation of teacher value-added scores for that school year, but also eliminated the baseline that would have been used to measure gains for inclusion in this year’s teacher evaluations.

When asked how these determinations will be made, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education acknowledges that a different methodology will have to be employed and says that, “we are still working with various statisticians and experts to determine the exact methodology we will use this year.”

In light of all the vagaries, I see merit to Rountree’s quest for a waiver from inclusion of 2016-17 teacher value-added scores in their evaluations, at least in grades 3-8. On the other hand, I believe her resolution is misguided in calling for test scores to be excluded from student grades, especially with respect to the high school end of course exams that are administered each semester. These EOC exams are also on an established footing where teacher value-added scoring is concerned.

As Fugate brought out at the October board meeting and several teachers attested at a workshop, such tests become meaningless—and students treat them as a joke—if they don’t count for anything. I’m less clear whether TNReady scores should be factored into student grades for younger kids as state law now provides. But this point is academic for the 2016-17 school year because grade 3-8 scores for the first year of the new test won’t be available until next fall. (Thereafter, the due date is by the end of the school year.)

When it appeared at the October board meeting that Rountree’s sweeping resolution (as opposed to a more nuanced one) was going to prevail, Deathridge invoked what is any board member’s “personal privilege” to defer action for a month. If Rountree continues to pursue it and a board majority now comprised of former teachers lend support, it will send a strong signal that the board is marching to the teachers’ drum.

However, there is one former teacher on the board who wants to avoid any such perception and could be influential in swaying others. He is Tony Norman who, since his retirement as a high school biology teacher, has also served on County Commission, including a stint as its chairman. While his animus toward McIntyre had a lot to do with his decision to run for school board, and he remains opposed to use of what he considers specious value-added scores in teacher evaluations, he is wary of the Rountree resolution.

“We’ve got to be sensitive that we have all these former teachers on the board, and we can’t look like we’re here to represent teachers,” he opines. “I believe there is a parallel between the interests of teachers and students, but we’ve got to make it clear that we’re putting the students first.”

One can only hope so.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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