TNReady Fallout

Tennessee freezes testing contract as online glitches derail TNReady debut

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with reporters in February about technical problems with the state's new online assessment.

One day after technical failures crippled Tennessee’s long-awaited switch to online testing, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen put the blame on the test’s developer and said the state is reviewing its $108 million contract with Measurement Inc.

“We have doubts about them going forward, and yes, we have concerns, and yes, we are reviewing that currently,” McQueen said during a news conference on Tuesday morning, one day after directing school districts to scrub Tennessee’s new online assessment and stick with a paper-and-pencil version for now.

“Our expenditures to Measurement Incorporated are based on what’s actually delivered, and today we don’t have an online platform,” said McQueen, adding that the state has paid the North Carolina vendor only $1.6 million so far.

A relatively small testing company in Durham, Measurement Inc. was awarded the contract in late 2014 to develop Tennessee’s new test, dubbed TNReady, to provide an online platform, as well as to align the assessment with the state’s current Common Core academic standards. Tennessee opted to use a private vendor after its legislature jettisoned the PARCC test, which was created in collaboration with several other states but criticized as federally intrusive because it wasn’t Tennessee-specific.

Measurement Inc. had worked with the state previously to develop a writing test for grades 3-11. And of five vendors bidding for the bigger task, the company stood out, according to state officials.

“It was truly the one that was immediately pointed to because it was the one with the lowest cost and the highest score,” McQueen said.

But on Monday at 8:25 a.m. CST, only minutes after students began using the online testing platform developed by Measurement Inc., a network outage forced students to stop taking the state’s new achievement test, the result of years of development, preparation and testing. By the end of the day, McQueen and her leadership team made to call to scrap the online transition for the school year.

“The new nature of the issue yesterday highlighted the uncertainty around this platform,” McQueen said Tuesday. “Despite the many improvements the department has helped make to the system in recent months, we are not confident in the system’s ability to actually perform consistently.”

Measurement Inc. president Henry Scherich says it was unneccessary for state officials to pull the plug on the online platform and noted that nearly 20,000 Tennessee students successfully completed their assessments on Monday. “Although MI believes that the server overload problem has been corrected, the State made the decision to discontinue online assessments,” he said in a statement released on Tuesday afternoon.

Many states have experienced glitches in their switch to online tests. For the most part, students in states who used PARCC, as Tennessee originally planned, were able to complete their tests online, though they scored lower than their peers who took the PARCC with pencil and paper.

But none of those states’ technical problems appear to have been as widespread as Tennessee’s breakdown — or as far-reaching in its fallout. McQueen’s decision to completely abandon online testing on the first day of the state’s new assessment was jarring and leaves Tennessee education leaders scrambling to assure teachers, students and parents of the test’s accuracy.

“PARCC, as far as I know, had no problems,” said Scott Marion, the director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and a technical advisor for PARCC. “(Tennessee was) on a very fast time schedule from when you left PARCC to when you had to develop a new assessment, and that is always a bit of a challenge.”

Advocates for fair testing note that system failures such as Tennessee’s also occurred in Florida, with other states experiencing significant disruptions in teaching and learning due to the switch to automated assessments.

“The collapse of Tennessee’s new computer testing system on the first day of administration is neither unexpected or unprecedented,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonpartisan group monitoring the use of standardized tests.

“Across the country, dozens of jurisdictions have experienced similar technical issues in attempting to introduce automated assessments. … The reason for this spate of problems is that computerized testing is being rushed into the marketplace before it is ready for prime time. Rather than heeding the advice of technology or education experts (or the experience of other states), politicians and ideologues have demanded artificial implementation timetables that do not allow sufficient time to develop the necessary infrastructure,” he said.

McQueen expressed confidence that the shift to TNReady was the right thing to do. Calm and smiling throughout Tuesday’s news conference, she also maintained that Tennessee’s current law  factoring data from the test into teacher evaluations is fair because of the state’s agreement to temporarily lower the weight of this year’s test in evaluations — although not totally negating it, as many educators wanted.

”That was truly about technology, to make sure that we didn’t have a technology transition that could harm someone, but only help them,” McQueen said.

She said that the paper version of TNReady, also developed by Measurement Inc., is fully aligned to “the depth and the breadth” of Tennessee’s standards and will give parents, students and teachers better information about students’ readiness for postsecondary education or training.

“TNReady remains, TNReady continues,” she said.

And though no timeline is in place, McQueen expects Tennessee eventually will join the ranks of states administering online tests, meaning that local districts’ investment in time and money for technology for the new test is not in vain.

“The investment has been a good one. The investment has been positive,” she said. “We’re still moving online. It’s the way of the world.”


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a response from the president of Measurement Inc.

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.”