Competency is not assessed with mandated mishap

By Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell

As an educator and parent of two school-aged children, I have never before seen such foolishness than what I witnessed last month concerning the state-mandated writing test. In my opinion, quite a number of administrators and political powers to be were made to look very silly by a deeply flawed, inflexible system that utterly failed in its purpose to measure student academic achievement. This lesson in bureaucratic incompetence is especially relevant due to our Nashville legislators just passing a bill stating that all teachers will be evaluated based on their students’ scores on these types of tests. But let me back up a minute, I am getting ahead of my story.

On February 2nd, across the state, students in 5th, 8th, and 11th grades were to take a state-mandated writing assessment test. The same question, called a writing prompt, is given to all students in a particular grade. For example, for 5th graders, the question could be, “Tell about an adventure you would like to have with a famous person.” Using the prompt, students write their responses. The test’s purpose is to assess at what level a student is able to write. Further, throughout a student’s elementary (5th), middle (8th), and high school (11th) career, the tests are compared to track the progress a student has made toward achieving mastery-level writing skills. Finally, these, along with another sets of state-mandated competency tests (called TVAAS), will be used to evaluate teachers, determining whether they will be retained, earn tenure, and, perhaps, even get a raise. For students, the state writing test and related competency tests help determine whether or not they will graduate and what, if any, college they will be qualified to attend. In other words, these tests and their results are extremely important!

This year, the testing went far awry. On the days leading up to these critical writing tests, the Memphis area experienced a winter storm. Beginning on Friday, January 29th, and through the early part of next week, many schools were closed due to the storms’ lingering effects. As a result of this, Memphis City Schools requested that the test, for security reasons, be delayed until Wednesday—especially since the neighboring Shelby County Schools were not expected to test until then. However, this request was denied by the state, so Memphis City Schools tested on Tuesday, and Shelby County Schools tested on Wednesday. Can you guess what happens next?

Surprise, surprise! By Tuesday evening, students in Shelby County had talked to their friends attending Memphis City Schools and knew the questions. A memo was even circulated to Memphis City School administrators stating that one of the questions had been posted on a Facebook page. Further, I learned from a source in Shelby County Schools that virtually all of the 11th grade students at one high school knew the writing assessment question before taking the test, due to students’ texting it to each other. Needless to say, if you know the question a day, hours, or even a few minutes before taking the test, you have a big advantage. You have time to organize your thoughts, mentally prepare your answer, and quickly execute when the test is given to you.

I have a hard time blaming kids for this problem. As we all know, knowledge is power, and, for once, this power landed in the hands of some 5th, 8th, and 11th graders thanks to a state bureaucrat who refused to allow testing to be delayed a day. The implications of this failure of common sense are huge. Students in Shelby County will very likely score better than Memphis City students due to their unfair advantage of knowing the test question early. These ill-gotten scores will help them advance toward graduation and in their collegiate pursuits. Shelby County teachers will undoubtedly show more progress in moving their students toward mastery-level writing skills than Memphis City School teachers. Thus, they will enjoy the evaluation and material benefits this entails. Further, without a doubt, the local media will pick up on this discrepancy in scores and skewer the “lousy” Memphis City Schools while praising the “amazing” advances in writing made by those incredible Shelby County Schools students. Finally, these types of tests require that teachers and principals report any irregulars in the testing process. I am curious how many Shelby County English teachers and school administrators reported to the state that their students knew the writing prompt question ahead of time. Being a tad bit cynical, I predict precious few.

Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell is a National Board Certified Teacher with over 25 years of educational experience. If you have any questions or comments, please email Dr. Maxwell at


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