An Ode To TCAP (and other standardized testing catastrophes)

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All across Tennessee, starting in the early spring semester, schools stop being schools and instead turn into TCAP factories. Recess starts getting skipped, PE turns into TCAP review time, social studies becomes non-existent, and teachers and children start developing physical symptoms of anxiety and stress.

Jac, who is one of the highest performing kids in his class, came home early from school with headaches and nausea on at least 5 separate occasions. He’s 10.
Charis would come home crying because her pre-test scores were not high enough.
(Not to mention the culture of crazy rewards and exclusions that essentially disclose what are supposed to be confidential scores to students. These “incentives” inevitably lead to shame and self-labeling by children not old enough to understand how little these tests really matter to their long term success.)

Deciding that NOTHING was worth this kind of stress for my ELEMENTARY aged children, I inquired about opting them out. I was told by an administrator at Shelby County Schools that opting them out was essentially ILLEGAL in the state of Tennessee.

I’m sorry – are you saying as a parent I have NO options as to how my kid is being examined by the state?? I can choose to not vaccinate them against polio, but I can’t have them read a book instead of being tested for 3 days straight??

Moving past the obvious absurdity of forced, high-stakes testing for small children, let’s talk about the ridiculousness that surrounds the scoring and reporting of the TCAP results.

No Child Left Behind (most ironic name for a program ever, in my humble opinion) and Race to the Top initiatives have determined that the best way to evaluate and compensate teachers is based off of these types of high-stakes tests. Consider for one moment if YOUR job and livelihood was based off of THREE days of results from children that you’ve taught for a few months. God forbid that kid was having a bad day or misread the question (kids NEVER misread questions by the way).

So when the preliminary “quick scores” were finally released the day before school got out for the summer, my kids’ teachers were elated to see gains in their students’ scores. When I went to pick Jac up from his classroom, I asked his teachers if they were happy with the results since it seemed like the scores were great. Their response? “We THINK these scores are good.”

“What? How do you not know if these scores are good??”
“Well the state hasn’t released the proficiency and advanced cut offs for the year, yet.”
“Wait, these CHANGE every year?!?”
“Not always, we usually know the cut off before they release the scores. But they haven’t told us yet.”
“Didn’t they ALREADY bump up the proficiency cut off to 85 last year?? Surely it won’t go any higher than that??”
“Surely not.”

Then, the next day, the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan when the state announced that it had INDEED raised the cut off to 89 or NINETY depending on the grade and subject.

Would you like to see the nightmare of an explanation that the Tennessee Department of Education gave for this jump?

Here’s a “simple” vocabulary lesson first…
(click images to enlarge)

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And here is their mind-boggling explanation…

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Note: There is ZERO transparency into how these tests are scored and then subsequently adjusted after the fact. Only vague explanations about comparing the tests to previous years tests to determine if the questions were at the same level of difficulty. Does anyone else see the obvious problem with this type of comparison?? This would mean that if significant gains WERE made across the state, that the scores would then just be adjusted assuming that the questions were obviously too easy. What. The. F.

Even if this ISN’T why the proficiency cut off jumped up FIVE points, we’ll never really know the real reason. They keep these tests so secret and the methodology of scoring so elusive, that they become untouchable to anyone who starts to demand answers.

In an attempt to explain this fiasco, this letter was went out to school directors from Governor Haslam’s office offering an explanation for the confusion surrounding the scoring process.

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Yes, you read that right – our teachers, administrators and students are suffering because they had a CHANGE IN PERSONNEL. What other business in the country could get away with this type of behavior by saying they had a fire and hire??

So TCAP is a shit show. But some are saying, it’s not an issue because we will be using TNReady next year. Oh. My. Good. God. TNReady is going to be an even bigger nightmare, mark my words. Along with all of the issues mentioned already, they are adding fill-in-the-blanks on almost every question in order for students to TYPE AN EXPLANATION of how they got their answer.

Where do I start on this…. the fact that 8 year olds can’t type? Or that each test is going to have to be hand graded requiring some sort of objectivity that is impossible with thousands of graders? Or that the servers have crashed multiple times on test runs leaving children in tears because they lost their work? Not to mention the fact that a student who might be behind in language, but accelerated in math will be penalized on the math section because they struggle to put their thinking into words. What 8 year old do you know that can verbalize their problem solving process in one to two sentences?? What TWENTY EIGHT year old do you know that can do that??

Parents – educate yourself about these tests. We need an opt-out option like so many other states offer to their students. We need transparency in these grading processes. We need to advocate for our teachers who are working their tails off only to be told that the cut off scores are a moving target that won’t be revealed until the very end of May.

Something has to change.

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