A Tennessee District Perseveres In Wake Of Online-Testing Woes
At a little past 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, Lori Smith, the associate principal at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Kingsport, received a text from her sister, who works as the instructional technology coordinator for the Monroe County school system. The schools in Monroe and several other districts in Tennessee had just started administering the state’s new computer-based tests, and her sister wanted to know how things were going. Smith responded, saying that they had already done a test run on their technology and everything was going smoothly. Little did they know, the testing technology across the entire state was experiencing major issues.
Kingsport was scheduled to begin testing the following day, and Smith had done everything in her power to prepare her teachers and students. She had met with the teachers to discuss procedures and assured them that they were well-prepared. She had also organized all the testing paperwork and color-coded it for easy reference. Smith knew that this was a new experience for her staff, so she made sure to provide clear instructions. Later that afternoon, she spoke to her 5th graders about the upcoming test and reassured them that even if things went wrong, it would be okay. She emphasized that they were all in it together.
After the school day ended, Smith stayed late to oversee a professional development session, while the teachers from grades 3 through 5 tested the online platform on the school’s Google Chromebooks. Fortunately, everything was working smoothly. During the professional development session, Smith had a conversation with one of the school’s technology coordinators, who informed her about a conference call held earlier that day regarding the tests. The coordinator described it as "brutal," which worried Smith. Despite this, Smith left school feeling confident and ready for the next day’s testing.
However, just an hour later, at 6:51 p.m., Smith received an email stating that the online test had been canceled. Instead, the entire state would be administering a paper test on a yet-to-be-determined date. Smith felt devastated and frustrated, as she had put in a lot of effort to prepare for the online test, and now it all seemed like a waste.
This setback was a significant blow to both the state and the school district. Tennessee had been considered a leader in education reforms since winning the Race to the Top grant from the Obama administration in 2009. As one of the first recipients of the grant, Tennessee had made significant changes to its K-12 system, and Kingsport had been an enthusiastic participant, complying with all the state’s requests. Kingsport schools had always been high-achieving, consistently ranking among the top 10 in the state. The district had excellent ACT scores, advanced placement participation rates, and scores that exceeded the state and national averages. The presence of the Eastman Chemical Company, a major plastics plant, also played a role in the district’s success by driving the local economy.
The cancellation of the online tests caused anxiety and disappointment among teachers and students, as it disrupted their carefully planned preparations. However, despite the setback, Smith remained hopeful and determined to overcome the challenges.
Reverting to Paper Exams
The testing organization is currently producing a large number of paper exams that will be sent to school districts in the next few weeks. Instead of using a computer mouse, students will now take these exams with No. 2 pencils. This decision is particularly difficult for Kingsport because students were finally going to take tests that were directly aligned with what they have been learning for the past three years. This is a significant moment for teachers, as their evaluations and compensation are partly based on students’ test scores. "Finally we’re no longer serving two masters," said Light before the testing issue arose.
Since 2012, teachers have been using Tennessee’s version of the Common Core State Standards while also preparing students for a state test that is still aligned with the state’s old standards. Despite the setback, students will still be taking tests that align with the current common core academic benchmarks. Light emphasized that the hard work the teachers have done will not be impacted by this change, and the only thing that is changing is the format of the test. However, she also mentioned that it feels like a major decision made in the middle of the game.
"We are a high-performing district, and I hope we will always be," said school Superintendent Lyle Ailshie. "We don’t want to become complacent or think that we have everything figured out. We always strive for improvement and want to do more for minority and low-income students." When the Tennessee education department instructed districts to use Common Core State Standards, Kingsport immediately implemented them, even before it was required. The district was also one of the first to modify its teacher evaluations and tied them to a new compensation model created by the teachers themselves. In preparation for the new common-core-aligned tests, Kingsport conducted additional training sessions on top of those provided by the state. By the 2014-15 school year, the state was ready to use the new common-core-aligned test developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
However, due to opposition from both the right and the left, primarily aimed at the common core, Tennessee’s legislature decided to pause and review its common core standards. This decision left districts like Kingsport in a state of uncertainty, as they had to use the old state test that was not aligned with the standards they had been using, but would still be used to evaluate teachers and affect their pay.
"That was the most frustrating part," said Ailshie, who gives credit to the district’s success to its dedicated teachers and administrators who have trusted the direction of the state and district’s education officials and have worked tirelessly to adapt to educational reforms. "You feel for your teachers." Kingsport’s compensation system rewards teachers with pay raises and bonuses based in part on student performance. However, the last-minute testing change resulted in anticipated flat scores, leading to few teachers receiving pay increases. "But we’re going to continue on and remain positive because we truly believe that once our curriculum is aligned, we will be rewarded," said Ailshie after the release of district scores last summer.
Kingsport, the Stoic
Kingsport was supposed to experience the benefits of alignment right now by administering its first common-core-aligned tests. However, scrapping the online tests means that teachers and students will have to wait a few more weeks. While there is a sense of relief that lessons and tests will finally match, the testing process is still stressful, even for a teaching team where more than 70 percent of teachers and administrators have advanced degrees. "The most important thing is to ensure our teachers feel supported and alleviate their fears about the unknown," said Brian Partin, principal of Ross N. Robinson Middle School. Partin has been an administrator for 13 years and is expected to lead the National Association of Elementary School Principals after this school year. "It’s all about staying on track and helping them understand that we are providing them with the best practices and that we are confident in everyone’s ability to support the students’ growth."
“When you are accustomed to working with these children and you are aware of what they are capable of, sometimes a test like this gives an inaccurate representation of their daily performance,” Partin expressed. “And that is the part that can be disheartening for teachers.”
Kingsport, the Dedicated
Teachers and principals acknowledge that Kingsport’s district office has made the otherwise frustrating process somewhat more bearable. “There is always open communication with my superiors within the district,” said Light. “I have no qualms about sending an email to the director of schools to voice a concern or share a positive experience. And I feel that I have a personal relationship with all the staff, which is not easily found elsewhere.” Partin, knowing how fortunate he is to work in a district like Kingsport, mentioned that this is especially true when it comes to training and support. Tennessee allocated a significant portion of its Race to the Top funds towards common-core training sessions, more than any other state. However, Kingsport has gone above and beyond in this regard, spending millions of its own money on additional training sessions, especially after the state’s funding ran out. “They truly do provide us with high-quality professional development,” agreed Smith, who worked as an elementary school teacher for over a decade before becoming an associate principal. “It feels like I have obtained a whole new college degree.”
Kingsport stands out from other districts in the state, where many of the tumultuous education policy changes of the last seven years have led to frustration and resistance. As Carrie Upshaw, the president of Kingsport’s board of education humorously stated during the convocation ceremony before the start of the school year in August, “We can withstand any achievement autopsies and standardized tests that come our way, and we can survive the ‘Road to Insanity.’”
Kingsport and other districts in the state may continue to experience difficulties for a while. In response to the common core backlash, the state legislature assigned a committee to review its academic standards and propose revisions. These recommendations, although minimal, are currently being considered by the legislature, which is expected to approve them. If that happens, the state’s common-core test will need to be changed yet again to ensure proper alignment. However, other changes may alleviate some stress.
The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed in December, reduces the influence of the federal government in education. It grants more control to states regarding accountability, testing, standards, and teacher evaluations. For instance, while the law retains the requirement for annual testing, it allows states to use the results in any way they choose within their own accountability system. This shift in power, intended to lessen the pressure of year-end exams, has brought relief to many in the education field, including teachers. However, implementation of the new law is not expected until the 2017-18 school year, and Kingsport has no intention of altering its current evaluation system, although it does plan to enhance its compensation system by offering new avenues and career paths that enable teachers to earn more. “I am hopeful that it will reduce some of the stress and allow us to focus more on the overall development of the child,” stated Partin. “It is not just about preparing for an assessment. We are preparing these children for life.”