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.

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County