Roy Exum: McQueen & Her TVAAS

Thursday, September 21, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

If I am reading my Ouija Board right, I suspect the Hamilton County School Board will vote to allow a controversial “partnership” to be formed with the state Board of Education tonight at its monthly meeting. State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has said she will demand the one-sided partnership to take over the operation of five at-risk schools in Hamilton County and, if the school board balks, she will add two more iZone schools to the list and her dreaded Achievement School District will totally operate all seven after dismissing every teacher.

This pirate is not a nice woman. Right now she’s demanding Shelby County (Memphis) and the Metro Nashville school boards to provide the state with student contact information and both steadfastly refuse. Oh? She is threatening to withhold state money! I say let her try it. Memphis and Nashville should call her bluff.

I don’t believe she’s got any power to withhold money. I wish the Hamilton County School Board could find the courage to tell McQueen ‘No!’ after her Achievement School District has failed horribly in Memphis and has little hope here. Yet she is proposing an outrageous partnership to be approved immediately and not one of our state representatives is challenging a folly that will cost the taxpayers (voters) millions in reckless spending.

McQueen has promised $1.5 million to trigger the launch of the partnership next fall. This year will be a “planning year” and McQueen’s term as Education Commissioner will end next December, which will create a hurricane of uncertainty after more wasteful spending that is the earmark of McQueen’s tenure. The woman has spent millions with no apparent success and the entire partnership promises to be more of the same.

The new partnership will have a separate school board that will be appointed instead of elected. (This is illegal in Tennessee … until legislators Todd Gardenhire and Bo Watson assure they can get the law amended.) McQueen’s board will have four “state” representatives and three “county” representatives, who are believed to be HCDE superintendent Bryan Johnson and two members of the elected school board, Tiffanie Robinson and Karitsa Jones, who represent the schools being rather blatantly stolen. (Legal alert: Can an elected official, being paid by the county, also sit on a different school board in the same county without a conflict of interest? Ethically?)

The partnership will have its own superintendent and will totally act without any oversight from Hamilton County mayors, judges, school officials or anyone else. The take-over is obscene in a democracy and flies in the very face of the county’s revival in education with Supt. Johnson now aboard. And tonight’s vote comes in the bitter wake of the Tennessee Value Added Assessment Scores (TVAAS) that determined Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga schools are the lowest of the low.

It has since been determined the TVAAS is hogwash. Two elementary schools on Signal Mountain mirror one another but Thrasher got the highest rating “5” while Nolan got the lowest “1.” One explanation is that the lowest includes ‘special ed’ students and is therefore unfairly penalized. Thrasher has no ‘special ed’ children. Not only is this grossly unfair, somebody needs to call the Department of Justice.

Here’s how an expert in elementary education explains what just happened:

* * *

“Nolan is a larger school and has a larger special education population.  Under TVAAS if a school reaches a certain number of ‘special ed’ students, or free and reduced lunch students, or minority students, etc. then that group becomes what is known as a 'subgroup’ for test results.  In turn, the subgroup's test scores are then compared to the whole-school population's test scores.  If there is a significant gap between the subgroup and the whole-school scores, then the 1-5 scale is strongly impacted. 

“As I understand it, Nolan has enough ‘special ed’ students for a subgroup and Thrasher does not.  With Nolan's high raw test scores, there is bound to be a large gap between the school scores and the ‘special ed’ subgroup's scores.  If the ‘special ed’ students had similar high scores they wouldn't be in ‘special ed’ classes.

* * *

Here’s one you are going to like even better. TVAAS is the brainchild of Dr. William Sanders, who was a statistician in UT’s School of Agriculture. TVAAS was originally used as a method for the genetic breeding of cows. Seriously. Sanders soon devised a way he could number children’s achievement on the same 5-to-1 scale, thus evaluate the worth of different teachers. He described what he did was like “double linear algebraic equation with around 100 parts."

Amazingly, he sold then-Governor Ned McWherter on the program. The professor – who died earlier this year -- then got the legislature (guys like Gardenhire and Watson) to believe “Using mixed model equations, TVAAS uses the covariance matrix from this multivariate, longitudinal data set to evaluate the impact of the educational system on student progress in comparison to national norms, with data reports at the district, school, and teacher levels."

There’s more. Our stealthy prof even wrote the law into the Tennessee Code. Since no one can possibly understand how you can rate a kid the same way you rate a cow, how can Candice McQueen and the state of Tennessee actually base day-to-day decisions on TVAAS? A bigger mystery is how can any legislator watch as the state pays millions of dollars for it! It’s so obvious – the Professor croaked with a giggle in his heart and a steamboat roll in his pocket. Follow the money …

Never mind that dozens of sources, from the RAND Institute to the Economic Policy Institute, have determined TVAAS is a big batch of hocus-pocus; if it’s good enough for a cow breeder to be successful, its good enough to enrage the entire state with misleading and biased numbers.

The take-home lesson? McQueen can use it like a laser-saber to bash inner-city schools. In a Tuesday email to state principals, according to, McQueen pledged that “the state would analyze the latest data to determine ‘critical next steps,’ especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities,” the Chalkbeat story read.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools,” she added, “is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses.”

I’m all over it … cattle and kids … rate either of ‘em 1-to-5 … “no excuses.”
“Double down.”

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