Online testing

Ready for TNReady? It starts this week. Here’s what you should know

PHOTO: patrisyu at

Beginning this week, Tennessee officially enters a new era of testing as most students in grades 3 to 11 start taking state achievement assessments online instead of with paper and pencil. And for the first time, the questions will be aligned with the current Common Core State Standards for math and English, in place since in Tennessee classrooms since 2012.

Here’s the latest information you need to know about the transition to the test, known as TNReady.

TNReady will be administered in two parts, with the first part counting only 20 percent toward scores.

The testing window for the first part runs between Feb. 8 and March 4, and schools have discretion in choosing their testing days. The first part will be comprised of open-ended, written responses for the English portion and multi-step problems for math. The results will count toward 20 percent of students’ final scores and, because it’s early in the school year, this part should assess students’ mastery of only 60 percent of the standards.

The testing window for the second part runs between April 18 and May 13 and will cover all standards. Question types include multiple-choice, interactive ones in which students drag and drop icons, and “selected response questions” in which students select all answers that apply.

Students taking the test on an iPad are at a disadvantage and have the option of taking paper-and-pencil tests.

Districts across Tennessee have worked diligently to get “online ready” for the testing switch, and most students will take their assessments on Google Chromebooks or computers. Some schools that had planned to use iPads have scrambled in recent weeks, however, after receiving notice that the State Department of Education recommends against using those devices. Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer for the department, said there is a subtle difference. “For example, using a finger stroke was problematic,” he said. “You may have had to do that five times. That’s a disadvantage.”

Lloyd is meeting with Apple representatives to work out the kinks, and the state is giving schools the option of using paper-and-pencil tests. By the end of January, only four districts had requested paper-based tests to replace iPads.

But it shouldn’t matter if students are taking the online version or the paper-and-pencil version.

State officials say paper-based test forms cover the same standards and, like the online tests, have been reviewed for standards alignment, bias and sensitivity, and accessibility. “There is no inherent advantage or disadvantage to a student in terms of taking a paper version of TNReady versus a computer-based version,” said Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research.

State officials say technical proficiency shouldn’t be a factor in scores, although research doesn’t always bear that out.

Towns says that, by this time, all Tennessee students should be familiar with the TNReady platform through practice tests and field tests during the last two years. She cites research that if students are familiar with the device and the platform, their scores won’t be negatively impacted by taking it online.

But other research suggests otherwise. The first time the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) writing test was administered online in 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics tracked the impact on student scores. “Students who had greater access to technology in and out of school, and had teachers that required its use for school assignments, used technology in more powerful ways” and “scored significantly higher on the NAEP writing achievement test,” wrote Doug Levin, then-director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, in a 2014 blog post.

If computers crash and systems fail, there’s a contingency plan.

Last October, some district leaders reported computers freezing when the state conducted a trial run of its new online testing platform. State officials have been tweaking the system and received a few reports of computer glitches in November when high school students on block schedules took TNReady. This month, as the bulk of Tennessee students take the online test, state officials say they are prepared for whatever happens.

“We will do what needs to be done to work through any challenges, be they weather, technical or whatever it is,” Towns said. “The worst that will happen is students will use the paper version.” If computers crash and no paper-based forms are immediately available, districts will have flexibility to administer the test outside of the testing window.

Lloyd said he’s not concerned about major failures such as servers crashing. “Those big things are easy to fix,” he said. “I’m worried about small things that can occur on certain operating systems in certain conditions.” Glitches such as a frozen computer screen wouldn’t impact as many students as a system-wide failure would, but it could impact individual students.

Towns tries to keep it all in perspective as the state, school districts and individual schools embark on this learning curve. Even if there are glitches, she quipped, “there will be no tissue damage.”

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”