By Sally Absher

TNReady or Not

Next April, students in grades 3-8 won’t be stressing over the annual High Stakes TCAP achievement tests, and high school students won’t be taking math and English End of Course tests in December and May.

But that doesn’t mean Tennessee has finally come to its senses and thrown out high stakes testing. Rather, this is the year that Tennessee rolls out the new online assessment, known as TNReady. The name gives the impression that it was created in Tennessee, by Tennesseans, for Tennesseans. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In an Education Instruction and Programs Subcommittee hearing chaired by Rep. Roger Kane on March 25, 2015, Rep. Rick Womick revealed the truth about the origins of the TNReady assessment. After dumping testing giant Pearson’s PARCC assessment in 2014, Tennessee hired Measurement Inc. to create the test that would replace the TCAP test.

But Measurement Inc. (and subsidiary Measurement Research and Associates) works with Pearson and Pearson VUE. Measurement Inc. also contracts with American Institutes for Research (AIR), a behavioral research organization funded by our tax dollars to the tune of about $2 billion and another $113 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. AIR also partners with Smarter Balanced, the other common core standard-aligned testing consortium. Smarter Balanced is supported by $360 million in tax dollars

AIR and Smarter Balanced specialize in adaptive testing techniques, said to shape the views, attitudes, and beliefs of children. AIR signed a contract with Utah to acquire their Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) test questions to be used in Tennessee (and Florida and Arizona). Measurement Inc. contracted with AIR to purchase those same common core Smarter Balanced-based test questions from Utah.

So to summarize, TNReady is simply the rebranded Utah SAGE assessment.  AIR purchased SAGE assessment questions for Tennessee, Florida and Arizona. Measurement Inc. paid AIR $2.34 million to lease the assessment questions from Utah for Tennessee. Former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman basically took Measurement Inc. and used them as a front company to purchase common core aligned standards, created by Smarter Balanced from another state.

How is that working out? Brian Halladay, Alpine School District, Utah Board Member, wrote a letter to parents after it was reported that last year, six out of ten kids in Utah failed the standardized SAGE test.

Halladay wrote, “The SAGE test is an unreliable, unverified test that our children from 3rd-11th grade are taking not just once, but up to three times a year. These tests aren’t scored by their teachers, but rather by AIR. This company is one of the world’s largest social and behavioral research organizations. Your child’s proficiency is being scored by a bunch of behavioral researchers.”

He continues, “This test is designed to have your child fail. Gone are the days when a student could feel a sense of achievement for getting 100% on a test. This test is touted to be “rigorous. If your child gets a correct answer the test will continue to ask harder and harder questions until he or she gets it wrong (who knows if what is tested was actually taught in the classroom?) Put simply, this means that your child likely will come home grumpy, anxious, or depressed after taking this test. With over 50% non-proficiency, this will affect more than half of the students that take it.”

And Hallady understands the toll on teachers, adding, “The teacher is almost as much of a test victim as the child. Having no idea of the test questions, teachers are still starting to be evaluated —on a test they can’t see. I believe we’re starting to see this leading to more experienced teachers leaving, and an increase in teachers with little to no experience not knowing the pre-SAGE environment.”

State law in Utah allows any parent to opt their child out. Hallady suggests, “If your parental instinct is kicking in, I would ask that you at least consider opting your child out of taking this test… Even if you don’t decide to opt out, talk with your teacher, know when your child is taking this test, and make sure your decision is in the child’s best interest.”

TNReady, like SAGE in Utah, is a completely online assessment, requiring a lot of skills with a computer mouse to drag, drop, and click, something kids using all those shiny new iPads won’t experience.  And how can an “adaptive test,” which by definition personalizes the difficulty of the questions to each child, be “standardized?” But the TN Department of Education is working overtime to tell us how wonderful TNReady is.

Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen and former KCS Broad Resident Nakia Towns, the department’s Assistant Commissioner of Data and Research, were in town last week to promote the TNReady assessment. About 75 people including principals, superintendents from surrounding districts, community members and legislators attended a luncheon sponsored by Great Schools Partnership.

GSP’s president Buzz Thomas has a heart for public education. But in spite of both a Masters of Divinity and a law degree, he can’t seem to understand that the current “education reform” policies are designed to destroy the very institution of public education he is so passionate about.

The News Sentinel quoted Thomas, “I think it was important for them to hear that they’ve worked with teachers, it’s aligned with our new standards and they believe it’s going to actually help us get kids ready for college and the workplace.” Does Thomas know that Jason Zimba, architect of Common Core standards, admitted that “college” means a non-selective 2 year community college?

We’ve got a name for that in Tennessee: “Tennessee Promise – 13th and 14th Grade.” Don’t count on your student being ready for Harvard. Or even UT.

The department can tell us it’s about raising expectations and closing gaps through assessments that now align with standards all they want. That doesn’t make it so.