Previous TCAP vs. TN Ready total testing times
Grades 3 through 5: TCAP / TNReady
English and writing: 226 min. / 290 min.
Math: 83 to 92 min. / 135 min.
Science: 95 to 104 min. / 95 to 104 min.
Social Studies: 92 to 104 min. / 145 min.
Grades 6 through 8:
English and writing: 260 min. / 320 min.
Math: 83 min. / 150 min.
Science: 95 to 104 min. / 95 to 104 min.
Social Studies: 92 to 104 min. / 135 min.
English I, II, and III plus writing: 240 to 360 min. / 350 min.
Math I, II, and III: 120 to 240 min. / 210 min.
Biology: 120 to 240 min. / 75 min.
Chemistry: 120 to 240 min. / 75 min.
U.S. History: 120 to 240 min. / 180 min.
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
Standardized test scores in Hamilton County remained relatively flat last school year, while other large urban districts in the state posted gains.
Principals in Hamilton County believe their schools can improve, but they are worried this year's new state-mandated test is robbing students of valuable instructional time needed to make that progress.
"There is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to assessment," Red Bank High School Principal Justin Robertson said. "There is some useful information coming from data, but there comes a point where we stop getting useful information."
Principals here are concerned the new state-mandated assessment — TN Ready, a revamped Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP — is consuming too much instruction time, which only will hurt students who are not keeping up with state averages.
Last year, students in Hamilton County tested below the state average in nine of the 10 tested TCAP categories by as much as 16.7 percentage points, results show. The achievement gap between students here only widened — poor students slipping farther behind academically — and overall, students made gains in only five of the 10 areas of testing compared to the previous year's TCAP results.
Because of the stagnant scores, the district received the lowest possible grade for growth — a 1 out of 5 on the annual State Report Card from the Tennessee Department of Education. Hamilton County scored the lowest in all four measured categories — Overall, Literacy, Numeracy, and Literacy and Numeracy — while districts in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville each earned a perfect five for their academic progress.
Principals in Hamilton County say state testing is important for accountability, but they fear the state has gone too far with TN Ready.
Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen came to Chattanooga on Sept. 22 to meet with principals and talk about TN Ready after hearing they were frustrated with the new test.
McQueen said Wednesday she had a healthy conversation with principals, and she's heard similar concerns voiced across the state she hopes will be addressed.
"We do need to talk about [testing] as a state," McQueen said. "We absolutely need to be thinking at the district level how we ensure that we are not spending too much time on tests."
Defending the new test, McQueen said the format and the questions are designed to show what students know and not allow them to memorize answers. She said TN Ready doesn't have more questions than the old test, but students are given more time to offer thoughtful answers.
"The best test prep is great teaching every day and great student learning," McQueen said. "If you want to help a student be prepared for TN Ready you need to be teaching them very well everyday, it's not 'kill and drill.'"
But principals say teaching time is being consumed by logistical chaos the test creates, including how long it takes just to teach students to use the online testing platform.
Normal Park Principal Jill Levine said TN Ready is taking away weeks of classroom instruction from her school.
Instead of just one week of testing, as in earlier years — Levine is concerned Normal Park will be disrupted for the entire six weeks students rotate through testing under the new format. Even if not all students are being tested during that time, she said, the school's schedule will be disrupted and instruction resources will be used for testing.
"Although we need to know when kids aren't being served or kids aren't doing well, the pressure that we've now attached to [this assessment] has increased the intensity for everyone and we're robbing children of the joy of learning," Levine said. "At what cost and at what expense are we doing this additional testing?"
On Thursday, Levine watched as a third grade teacher spent an hour logging each of her students into the TN Ready online testing platform and teaching them how to make a bar graph in preparation for the test.
"This is time the kids were not in the classroom learning," Levine said. "It wasn't even Excel or Microsoft Word that they are learning to use, which is something they would use in life. These tools they're learning are just not helpful."
McQueen addressed that issue by saying today's students are "digital natives" in a world where technology is ubiquitous, but that schools have not kept pace with shifts in the digital world.
McQueen said national data shows students' keyboarding proficiency does not affect their test results.
But Robertson said he worries about his Red Bank High students. About 78 percent of them are economically disadvantaged, and he fears the poorer ones will be harmed because they do not have the same experience with and access to technology.
"Everyone thinks kids these days were born with a laptop in their crib, but that is not true for kids living in poverty," Robertson said. "When students come to us there is a huge digital divide. We're putting kids living in poverty [without Wi-Fi or computers] at even more of a disadvantage."
Levine said the release of the U.S. Department of Education's Testing Action Plan weeks ago speaks to the situation in Tennessee.
The Testing Action Plan states that in too many schools, "there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students."
The plan encourages states to adopt fewer and smarter assessments that are worth taking, high quality, time-limited and fully transparent, among other recommendations. The plan reaffirms the vital role of good assessment, and urges Congress to reduce overtesting on the state level.
"Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, [assessments] take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creative approaches from our classrooms," the plan states.
McQueen argues TN Ready will prove valuable to schools. She said she knows moving to a new test can be hard, especially since Tennessee has used the same testing format for nearly two decades.
But Levine is concerned this is just another step in the wrong direction.
"Our state has increased testing, and increased the time and the number of tests we're taking," Levine said. "So they've done basically the opposite of what the federal government is recommending right now."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.