Talking tests: TN education commissioner to meet with Knox Co. teachers

Sept. 20, 2016: The state's education commissioner will be in Knoxville next week to talk with teachers about improving state standardized testing.

A group of Knox County teachers next week will speak one-on-one with the state's top education leader and the company that makes Tennessee’s new standardized tests.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will host a private roundtable discussion on Tuesday with local teachers to address their concerns and talk more about the annual assessment for students.

The move comes as the state officially cut back on standardized testing this summer and created just one test for the end of the school year.  The meeting also comes a few months after massive technical problems forced the state to pull the plug on its TNReady assessment testing.

The state fired the North Carolina company previously hired to operate the TNReady online testing system.  In July, the governor’s office finalized a $60 million, two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar, in a deal that officials hope will bring a better experience for teachers, parents and students.

The 90-minute roundtable meeting, which is not open to the public, takes place Tuesday at Fulton High School. It will include McQueen, a Questar representative, and about 15 teachers who were selected by their principals.

State House Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, organized the forum in an effort to involve more stakeholders in the testing process “so we have an assessment that works for everyone” and to create more transparency between the state and local educational levels.

“Based on the failure we had last year with (former testing company) Measurement, Inc., we are just reassuring teachers how it's going to work, the process, and allow them to have feedback in the process,” Smith told WBIR 10News on Tuesday. “Something teachers have not had a great deal of input in over the last few years, we're trying to change that.  And that's why we decided to have this meeting.”

Smith said the meeting will give teachers a “definitive voice in the process of how testing works in the state.”

10News contacted McQueen’s office Tuesday.

Department of Education spokesman Chandler Hopper said: “The goal of this meeting is to have an open dialogue specifically focusing on how our education system is preparing students for college and careers . . . . Commissioner McQueen is committed to incorporating educator feedback into the decisions made at the department and greatly appreciates the opportunity to hear directly from teachers.”

Knox County interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas said he's encouraged that state officials "are continuing to listen and reassure educators about the state’s academic assessments."

"We overtested our students for a few years, but we don’t want to swing too far in the other direction and undertest them," Thomas said. "A strong annual standardized test is necessary to tell us how we are doing compared to other students across the state and nation.”

In April, the state terminated its five-year, $108 million contract with Measurement, Inc., which was used to develop TNReady tests statewide. The company’s online testing platform in February couldn’t meet the demand and the state switched to paper tests.

State education officials voted not to count TNReady test scores against elementary and middle school students in May.

“Because we do use these assessments for evaluating teachers, we’ve got to have transparency . . . so that teachers kind of know what they’re shooting for, what mark they’re going for,” Smith said.

He added that the state – once the tests are complete – will release 70 percent of the questions so parents can see what their children got wrong and where they can improve.

Teachers from roughly 20 schools – most of them in the 13th House district, which Smith represents – were invited. Some schools, for example, include West, Fulton, Central and South Doyle high schools; Whittle Springs Middle school; and Mount Olive and Bearden elementary schools.

Principals from the schools picked the teachers who will attend.

A number of educators and officials applauded the forum but had some concerns.

For example, Gloria Johnson, a Democrat who is running against Smith in the November election, said parents and teachers should have been brought in earlier.

“To me it sounds like they’re listening to teachers after the fact,” said Johnson, a retired Knox County teacher. “It would have been nice if teachers were at the table before decisions were made, instead of after they were made.”

Johnson said she was “thrilled” McQueen was meeting with teachers but the meeting – because principals picked who would attend – “seemed more orchestrated than it should be.”

“I wish she would do it all over the state and wish she would listen to some of the teachers who speak out,” Johnson said. “I know she’s a smart woman and I know she wants to be successful.”

Knox County School Board member Patti Bounds agreed.

“From the times I’ve met Commission McQueen, she seems to be a very good listener and I’m glad she’s going to be listening,” Bounds said. “It’s good she’s coming in. Do I think it will make that much of a difference? Absolutely not. But, it’s at least a step in the right direction.”

Bounds said most of the key educational decisions are made at a state or national level and “the further away from the classroom you are the less likely you will understand how it impacts students and their families.”

School board member Amber Rountree echoed Bounds' statements.

"While I appreciate McQueen coming to gather input from local educators, it might have been more beneficial to do so before Questar had been selected," she said. "Educator input is invaluable, but perhaps they should also consider gathering input from the (local education agencies) across the state as well."

(© 2016 WBIR)


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