Tennessee to trim science, social studies testing, boost reading exams

, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee

Tennessee third- and fourth-graders will spend less time testing for science and social studies and more time on reading assessments, the state Department of Education announced Wednesday.

“There will be an increased focus on literacy in those grades, aligned with the state’s focus on reading, and new components will be included in the English language arts exam,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a blog post Wednesday announcing the changes.

 

The possible reduction in testing time, as well as an added focus on literacy, came as welcome news to Nashville school board Vice Chairwoman Jill Speering.

“I’ve been a big proponent of reducing time spent on testing,” said Speering, who also has been an advocate for Nashville literacy initiatives. “I look forward to hearing more and learning more about the assessment.”

McQueen’s blog post was meant as an update to the ongoing work the department is doing to finalize its Every Student Succeeds Act draft plan. The state has received over 2,000 pieces of feedback on the plan, McQueen said. The Every Student Succeeds Act is a sweeping new federal education law, and Tennessee’s plan to comply with it is expected to be submitted to the federal government in April, McQueen said.

The need to reduce the testing requirements for the two subjects in the lower grades and boost some aspects of the reading test came up as part of that input, McQueen said.

“It has also been clear that there are some adjustments we already believe make sense for our final ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) plan,” she said.

The state already announced testing time reductions on the state’s TNReady assessment in July when the state switched to a new test vendor. The state said at the time testing would be cut by 30 percent for teachers and educators.

For grade 3-8 students, that’s about three-and-a-half hours less time spent on state-mandated standardized testing each year. High school students also will see a cut in year-end tests, with a typical 11th-grader seeing about the same reduction in testing time.

The paring down of science and social studies exams might not necessarily translate to dramatic reductions in testing time because the department is beefing up the reading and language arts assessments. A state Education Department spokeswoman said it is unclear how time spent on testing will be impacted, but it could be reduced.

Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said she supports focused testing such as the announcement to target reading in third and fourth grades. The Memphis-area schools director added she also supports any testing time reduction.

“I would say we need to be careful not to dwindle (testing) so much in every grade where we can’t get a good picture of what kids know,” Mason said about reducing science and social studies testing. “But what we do know is that if kids aren’t able to read they aren’t going to be successful in science and social studies.”

In the announcement Wednesday, McQueen also said the state will continue to explore what it will take to streamline 11th-grade exams. The comment in the blog post by McQueen comes a day after she took a stand against bills pending before state lawmakers aimed at replacing TNReady with the ACT.

A bill has been filed on limiting testing time in all grades. Other bills have targeted TNReady assessments and call for allowing districts flexibility in using either the ACT or SAT to monitor student progress.

“I know there are bills on this very topic. I want to take a stand on this. There are issues with replacing one with the other,” McQueen said during a Tuesday afternoon House Education Committee hearing. “I want to be clear that doesn’t mean we haven’t spent hours and days on this topic.”

McQueen said during the meeting that the ACT and TNReady tests have two very different purposes.

The ACT test looks at the cumulative knowledge students have gained during their time in school, she said. TNReady tests whether students have mastered the standards required for students to graduate.

“Potentially using ACT as a new measure doesn’t get at the depth of expectations,” McQueen said.

Reach Jason Gonzales at jagonzales@tennessean.com or 615-259-8047 and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.

The full blog post:

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Over the past year, we have been working to draft our state plan to transition to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and build on the work we’ve started in partnership with our school districts through our strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds. In December, the department released our draft ESSA state plan that incorporated much of the input we had received from more than 2,000 Tennesseans and asked for further feedback and strategies for how we will achieve our shared goals.

We truly heard from a variety of Tennesseans during the feedback window: educators, parents, advocates, students, district and school administrators, business leaders, school board members, librarians and counselors, special education teachers, higher education faculty, legislators, state officials, and others. They shared a range of ideas, helping us to further define our work for Tennessee’s students, and they represent every school district in our state.

Now, we are working through the 2,000 comments provided by these stakeholders and incorporating those with the input we also received from 1,000 community members across the state during our six town halls. This feedback has been largely positive and centered on a few key themes that are helping us further improve and confirming much of the plan we laid forth.

Across all groups, we have heard how the opportunities and areas of focus in our plan resonate and align with the existing priorities and goals of our state.

  • We need to ensure that our focus on students’ growth is well-rounded.
  • We must attend to the needs of all students in pre-K–12—especially historically disadvantaged students—so they can experience success after high school.
  • We have to continually ensure we are supporting educators.
  • We should hold our districts and schools to high expectations, while providing increased flexibility and autonomy.
  • The final plan needs to provide stability for our schools moving forward to let our educators adjust to the new standards, assessments, and expectations, while still allowing room for continual improvement.

Through this process, we have also received input from educators and administrators that has helped us to refine and improve our ESSA plan to be responsive to the day-to-day experiences in our schools.

  • We want an accountability system that has multiple pathways to success and that considers many indicators of how students are growing and being prepared for the future.
  • We are aiming to provide more funding, support, and transparency to districts through the school improvement process – while requiring turnaround strategies that we know work.
  • We are increasing the tools, data, and supports available to empower districts and creating opportunities for them to take their strengths further.
  • We need to ensure that the needs of our English learners are met and they receive an education that equips them to be successful.

It has also been clear that there are some adjustments we already believe make sense for our final ESSA plan:

  • We plan to cut the TNReady science and social studies assessments in half for our students in grades 3­­–4. Because there will be fewer questions on those two subjects, students’ scores will fall within only two performance levels, instead of the usual four on the other TNReady assessments. Additionally, there will be an increased focus on literacy in those grades, aligned with the state’s focus on reading, and new components will be included in the English language arts exam. However, these grade-level assessments will still be shorter overall, and we will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade.
  • We also will reduce the weighting of the Opportunity to Learn index to 10 percent for all schools and subgroups, and this metric will be labeled as “Chronically Out of School” to better describe the metric as including chronic absenteeism and out-of-school suspensions.

Over the next few weeks, we will continue to work with key groups, educators, and directors of schools to continue to refine our final plan before we submit it in early April. In particular, we will be soliciting feedback on Focus school identification and support and district accountability. I am encouraged by the positive feedback and ideas that have been shared with us and the ways stakeholders believe our ESSA plan will allow us to build upon the positive momentum in our state. The feedback we’ve received has helped to solidify and improve upon the strategies we will adopt, and we are excited to continue this dialogue moving forward.

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