1-17-19 Penny Schwinn_Education Commissioner_official Bluebook Portait

Penny Schwinn

Education leaders are increasingly questioning the validity of claims made by Gov. Bill Lee and his administration about the alarming extent to which students fell behind in learning during the pandemic.

On Sept. 23, Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced research results that showed an estimated 50 percent decrease in proficiency rates in third-grade reading and a projected 65 percent decrease in proficiency in math.

Rutherford County Schools Superintendent Bill Spurlock said he believes the state used old test results, as the Murfreesboro Post previously reported. Neither state legislators nor school districts were informed that the information would be released, he said.

TCAP and TNReady are the state’s tests to measure student proficiency, and neither was administered during spring 2020.

The Post asked the Tennessee Department of Education for more information about the tests they used to guess the proficiency rate and “Checkpoints,” a type of assessment the state mentioned. There was an emphasis on learning how many 3rd-grade student tests were used since Schwinn spoke about that grade level.

Predictions made

The department used research conducted by two companies – NWEA and CREDO – which had studied student proficiency levels, but the data was not Tennessee-centric. The NWEA report was issued in April, early during the pandemic. The CREDO report was a simulation done in an attempt to estimate spring 2020 national test results.

Victoria Robinson, media director for TDOE, said, “The department first reviewed information from NWEA and CREDO and then looked at the initial 30,000 start of year checkpoints that have been administered. This number of checkpoints that have been completed is increasing daily and is now over 40,000. The start of year checkpoints focus on 3rd- 8th grades.”

Robinson provided a list of 38 school districts that administered the Checkpoint, which she called a free and optional start-of-the-year test. RCS and Murfreesboro City Schools were not listed.

J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, said the Checkpoint results are not comparable to TCAP, and he questioned the state using them for this purpose.

“The data Commissioner Schwinn shared is from the beginning of the year checkpoints accessible through SchoolNet, which is owned by Pearson,” Bowman said. “Pearson is the company that is currently in charge of our state tests. According to the department’s own guide: Checkpoint is not predictive of, or comparable to, summative TCAP results.”

“Did learning loss occur? Most assuredly,” Bowman said. “But how the Department of Education arrived at these figures, based on this and older information, which may not be relevant is merely conjecture. Why the state released the information at this time, while many districts are still in process of looking at this issue, is questionable at best. It also raises the question of data mining and what personably identifiable information is available to companies on Tennessee children and is being shared.”

Robinson said, “The start of year checkpoints were developed from actual TCAP items as well as aligned skills found in previous grade/course standards that are most essential for students to engage in on-grade level content … Start of year checkpoints cover the previous year’s content for an incoming grade level, so start of year checkpoints for incoming 4th graders would cover content from the third grade.”

Schwinn’s responses

The Post interviewed Schwinn when she visited Murfreesboro last Tuesday. The questions and her responses follow.

Q: In what way did the research by the CREDO and NWEA companies help predict student deficiencies? Some educators say the results are old data and the Checkpoints are not comparable to TCAP and TNReady.

A: The study uses the old testing data. They do predictive estimates and use reverse modeling to give experts an understanding of where they want proficiency to be.

“Districts are doing their own beginning of the year Checkpoints, but this department is not releasing that data; we believe it belongs to the districts to make and release that if and when they feel comfortable,” she said. “What we are seeing, is that generally, our youngest students – which makes sense – they’re out of school twice as long than otherwise they would have been will likely see more summer slide.”

All that assumes that there has been no education happening since the pandemic, which is not entirely the case, she said. As teachers return, they are working hard.

Q: Did DOE tell educators the Checkpoint data would not be released or used for data collection when it ended up being used in the Sept. 23 announcement?

A: “We have not shared the Checkpoint data,” she said. “We do not intend to release the data.” All the released data was from CREDO and NWEA.

Q: What would you say to superintendents who say that DOE did not talk to them before releasing the CREDO data? In Rutherford County, they did their own testing and found a 2 percent deficiency.

A: “We’ve been talking to superintendents three times per week for the last six months. And I think on this one it is a good opportunity to talk with all the superintendents a couple of times around ways to make sure that every piece of information we give them … certainly we will continue to have that robust dialogue.

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