Tennessee has data mined kids for 20 years in schools but never allowed teachers to see test scores: now under Race to the Top the scores will be accessible

Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top is a federal extortion plan designed to reward states for educational deform keeping with the philosophy of competition and class-based education.  But the reform, as I have outlined for www.dailycensored.com, is a testing regime of privatized education funded by billionaires and memorialized in the think tank writings of Paul T. Hill (designer of the New Orleans ‘experiment’ on our children) and other right wing pundits that for years have had one thing and one thing only on their minds:  privatizing education, initially with charters and eventually funding the two-tiered class-based mess through private vouchers.  Charter schools are simply Trojan horses for the salesman of insipid individualism for they understood early in 2000 that vouchers wouldn’t sell to the American public. 

The $4.35 billion fund, which is part of President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was announced about a year ago and since that time Tennessee and Delaware have been the only ‘winners’, out of 40 applicants, in Phase 1 of the competition/extortion scheme. Tennessee won $500 million; Delaware won $100 million.

Tennessee’s Testing Regime

One of the reasons Tennessee was picked by the Duncan regime to receive part of the Race to the Top money is due to the fact they were muscled early into raising their caps on charter schools and attending to other issues in Duncan’s “four assurances” necessary to qualify for the cash.  But even more insidious is the fact that Tennessee has something crucial to Race to the Top and the rating agencies that will decide who will authorize charter schools.  It is the little known fact that Tennessee has kept detailed measurements of student achievement for nearly two decades and has in place a system to do so.  All of this is harbored at the state level in the form of metrics and scores. 

The program is called The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). What is most incredible is that the data collected over decades has been off-limits to teachers, who still don’t know exactly how to use it to ‘improve instruction’, according to reviews of the state’s Race to the Top application (Untapped resource: State unlocks data storehouse for teachers, Kelli Gauthier, April 4, 2010 http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2010/apr/04/untapped-resource-state-unlocks-data-storehouse/?print).  In other words, the state has been keeping copious records of metrics on students for twenty years but this information has not been available to teachers for use to improve their teaching nor students to increase their learning? Sound nonsensical?  Well it is and it isn’t. 

On the one hand, right wing think tanks, privatizers and their faux intellectuals have been arguing for decades that teachers need feedback from test scores so they can improve student gains.  That was the stated purpose of No Child Left Behind, according to the bi-partisan politicians that passed it.  More tests yield more information which yield ‘best practices’ which yield more competitive students in the capitalist global economy. But amazingly, until January, only 14 percent of Tennessee teachers had access to TVAAS data, which reviewers called the “most extensive longitudinal student achievement data system in the nation.”  So why would the teachers, who give the tests and then are held hostage to them not be able to see the scores and thereby use the metrics to ‘improve instruction’?  Why wouldn’t students, who test makers say the test is designed to assist with learning not be able to utilize the assessment results to critically examine their own strengths and weaknesses?

Even Dan Challener, the president of the Public Education Foundation who helped write the Race to the Top application was quoted as saying recently:

“Most districts use TVAAS as a way to measure learning, but its most powerful role is to improve instruction. If we can understand why someone got an A, we can replicate it (ibid).”

If it is the most powerful tool to improve instruction then why wasn’t it shared with teachers, parents and students?

According to Dr. Kirk Kelly, Hamilton County Schools’ director of accountability and testing, access to the testing data was restricted to protect teachers from finger-pointing:

“Perhaps the ball has been dropped in staff development — what do we do with (teachers and students) who are doing well, or with those who are struggling (ibid).”

 He went on to note:

“State laws made the data more “secretive, confidential.” Principals usually showed TVAAS scores to teachers once a year, but that was about it” (ibid).

This is pure subterfuge, for these test scores and data were banked for two decades.  Some one must have been using them and for some purpose other than student learning and teacher performance. 

All of this is about to change in Tennessee due to funding from Race to the Top.  But the state had to get gussied up to get the funds first; so, for example in a special session in January 2010, the Tennessee General Assembly passed sweeping education reforms that helped the state win the $500 million in Race to the Top money — like lifting caps on charters, going after tenure and trying to impose merit pay on teachers.  Since then, every teacher in the state has been assigned a password to access the data online, another IT function which will take time from authentic interaction with students and the development of authentic instruction.

At the special January session lawmakers, who said they were also acting in the interest of Race to the Top, voted to make TVAAS scores 35 percent of tenure decisions and teachers can review their scores whenever they want.  The whole thing is like a credit rating score used to qualify to buy a home or get consumer credit.  It has nothing to do with education other than assuring authentic learning does not take place.

But since the data itself is difficult to use and understand, state officials have said they will use some of the Race to the Top money to train teachers in college on how to use it.  That will certainly be a boon to the privatized corporate testing companies whose stock market prices live and die by the test.  Now they will have for-profit opportunities to design elaborate test taking regiments with IT capabilities; they will also profit on the backside as teachers will be trained in teacher college preparation classes not to be teachers, but to be auditors and data entry workers for the companies.  Lovely. 

So as learning is reduced to test scores and metrics, teacher preparation programs will now include instruction on how to become bookkeepers and auditors for the district with the ‘idea’ that this will help them improve their teaching capabilities, even though for 20 years they were not privy to the scores.  This then begs the question: if the teaching capabilities of teachers would be enhanced by analyzing difficult and often incomprehensible test scores, then why wasn’t it done for twenty years?

The answer can be found within the historical folds of changes in social and educational policy.  With the passage of No Child Left Behind the golden doors of opportunity were opened for the private, for-profit testing companies and their shareholders and CEO’s.  These companies could now conceive of and create testing rubrics that could be sold for profit to school districts which then could work to reduce the ‘chaos’ of student learning to the regimentation of testing and the measurement of teacher competency to the madness of metrics. 

Now, with Race to the Top making testing one of the ‘four assurances’ of the program in order to receive funds; the Tennessee 20 year experiment in warehousing student data can be resuscitated and replicated throughout the US.  After all it is a proven longitudinal testing regime for over twenty years.  Either states adopt similar rubrics, or they will not get the funds they need to educate kids while state budgets dry up faster than Lake Powell or the Colorado River.  The calibration mechanism, TVAAS, Tennessee so arduously put together for 20 years will be a template for other states to replicate while clamoring for the ortz of education like kids under a piñata scrambling for candy.  This is one reason Tennessee got the bag money from Race to the Top.

Test scores were not shown to teachers in Tennessee for they are useless chrome plated mechanisms that tell us nothing about student performance and teacher effectiveness

On the other hand, the failure of the TVAAS to be used for twenty years to so-call “help teachers and kids’, it can be argued, is due to the fact that the test scores cannot improve teacher or student performance.  They are longitudinal tracking devices used by Tennessee administrators so, as they say, they can get a better look at where teaching and learning are thriving and where improvements are needed. 

All this doesn’t seem to have helped Tennessee teachers or children over the last 20 years nor the districts.  That’s because it doesn’t work; all it does is create work; it creates work for the teachers who will now be forced to become IT analysts and data entry operators; it creates work for the administrators who can copy it onto spread sheets and hold power-point meetings and luncheons to talk about the incomprehensible results and thus keep their overpaid positions; and of course, more importantly, it works to create profits for the corporate testing companies that are now routing their snouts into school districts, classrooms and states throughout the country vacuuming up public funds for inauthentic assessments and private profits.

As far as teachers and students are concerned these tests are not only inauthentic, they are taking time away from authentic teaching and learning and forcing students into one-size fits all learning, thus robbing them of childhood and a chance to succeed in life.  They are reducing the act of teaching to the act of measuring, as teachers become tailors and children stand on a box and become fitted for new clothes.  What teachers and students will find is that not only are the test scores useless in improving student performance but they take time away from the human interaction, dialogue and classroom teaching necessary to help students become educated critical thinking citizens. 

Tenure, merit pay and the tests

With teachers’ livelihoods, job security and pay being laced to the pernicious test scores, the Tennessee legislature has assured teachers will now be allowed to take a ‘peek’ to see if they have an economic future, if they can pay their mortgages, if they can raise their own kids, have secure employment and pay their bills; the scores will become determiners of their jobs and their student’ futures. 

The tests will also work to create an environment for the psychological construction of competitive attitudes among teachers; they will create fear and distrust, as self interest replaces teacher collaboration.  This is all good news for the managing of perceptions necessary to get teachers, student and the public to buy into the privatized tests.  Tethered to the competitive tests, students and teachers will now be forced to survive in Arne Duncan’s new panoptic Petri dish of self-optimization.  Using the matrices of human actions through pedagogical tests for monitoring teachers, marketing testing products and controlling students, citizens are mendaciously told this will all assure stability in the face of student poverty and collapsing social structures.

Machining students

In a violent and corrupt society schools are transformed into digital machines designed to control and produce people through base functionalism, reducing learning to simple minded functions performed by both teachers and students.  This all rests on the bedrock of a bleak theory based not on human nature, but on human exploitation.  The Hobbsian self-justifications of bettering the profession through competition among all parties is an invitation to engage in the hand-to-hand combat techniques of ruthless capitalist relations. Students will increasingly confront these brutish conditions as they exist in these institutions of madness and sorrow, eventually making their way to the ‘free market’ where the insanity of numerology also decides who lives, and who dies. 

Due to Race to the Top the tests will now not only be available to teachers and administrators to be used as a ‘disorder checklist’, but the teachers themselves will become the object of them as well.  The teaching environment that Tennessee is creating with the use of test scores for tenure and promotion of students and learning will promise to create an environment of rational incentives based on mathematically measured outcomes that lead to rational selfishness, go-it-alone-individualism and an educational enterprise devoted to privatized for-profit yardsticks and the creation of standardized personalities.

This is the tragedy of No Child Left Behind cemented into place with the Race to the Top slogan preferred and adopted by Duncan to continue the destructive public policies that place students and teachers in fear-driven laboratories of despair.  The numerologists are managing to take what was once a collaborative profession devoted to the development of the emotional and rational aspects of human behavior and learning and have boiled the enterprise down to a rabid Social-Darwinist test taking scheme. 

This is no coincidence, nor is it derived from legitimate educational debates over the best way to teach children in a caring environment; it is the result of neo-liberal economic policies where politically condoned ruthless business investments are placed in a one size fits all model of human happiness and development and  seeded by greedy business interests and Wall Street vulture capitalists who eventually will be poised to reap the cash harvests while turning the grasslands of education into the killing fields of hopelessness and obedience training.

Capitalist relations of production and concentrated financial power driven by neo-liberal economics promises class-based educational policies in Tennessee and elsewhere

Concentrated financial power is driving the Race to the Top and as I have written extensively for many publications and books, the test scores are the new currency in the dystopic arrangement called ‘schooling’.   They are the Frankensteinian creation of alchemists, numerologists and technocrats employed in the corridors of power and profit to handle a burgeoning surplus population that is seeing a rapid free fall in their standard of living.  More and more people are becoming disposable waste in the system of profit before people.

That Tennessee had this system in place for 20 years to track students brings up the question that is on the tip of many tongues: if the testing warehouse existed in Tennessee for twenty years, how was it used and why?  Who profited from it and how?   Has it been given to marketers?

The salient question remains unanswered: Isn’t this just one big data mining project and for what purpose?   Let’s be gratuitous and assume test scores and metrics had some relevancy to teaching and learning (which in their current form they do not) then arguably their utilization would not necessarily create the need to know specific student identities, would they?  On the other hand, if a district also wanted to use the data to reward excellent or punish poor-performing teachers or schools through denial of tenure, merit pay, or needed funding for the institution then the identities of teachers and student must be made public, right?  Sounds like a legal privacy issue for both parties as more concerns arise over who might get their hands on this data bank and just what they might do with it?  Will it get into the hand of marketers and recruiters?


Tennessee’s scramble to get its hands on Duncan’s blackmail cash is a disgusting tribute to a theory of reducing human beings to numbers to be tracked on computers and will never be successful in obtaining the critical learning needed for an educated citizenry.  It is a sorcerer’s dream and more than that, a big opportunity to penetrate schools with for-profit testing regimes that will then be used to judge all stakeholders in the new laboratories of despair.  The tests will also be worked like clay in tandem with the textbook companies and curriculum development specialists, all privatizers themselves. 

It seems the collaboration necessary for teachers and students to form an environment of inquiry, curiosity and civility has now been replaced by the collaboration of the test makers, the curriculum providers and the politicians who enable all the neo-liberal crackerjack economic and social policies without any interest in either teacher development or student learning. 

Under current capitalist relations of production and changes in the means of educational production, it seems to me we as citizens have become the objects of our technology and the subjects of our rulers.  No society based on the crass unleashing of individual private self-interests can hope to morally last in this morbid condition of semi-coma.  But don’t tell that to Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, The Walton Family, The Fisher Family and all the other well-heeled ruffians’ intent on discharging thinking for the worship of private profits.