One and done

Tennessee fires TNReady testmaker, suspends tests for grades 3-8

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

The Tennessee Department of Education has terminated its contract with the developer of the state’s new standardized test and suspended testing for students in grades 3-8 this school year due to the company’s inability to deliver testing materials, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday.

However, TNReady testing will continue as planned for the state’s high school students, since those materials already have been delivered.

The announcement delivered the fatal blow to a test that has been plagued with problems beginning with a failed online rollout on Feb. 8 and numerous subsequent delivery delays of printed testing materials. The last straw came last week when Measurement Inc. failed to meet its most recent deadline — to deliver materials by April 22 — in time for testing to begin this week.

As of Wednesday morning, all districts still were waiting on some grade 3-8 materials to arrive, with a total of 2 million documents yet to be shipped, according to a statement from the department.

“Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing,” McQueen said. “We’ve exhausted every option in problem solving with this vendor to assist them in getting these tests delivered. Districts have exceeded their responsibility and obligation to wait for grade 3-8 materials, and we will not ask districts to continue waiting on a vendor that has repeatedly failed us.”

Tennessee is the second state this year to suspend its standardized tests due to problems rooted in technical glitches. Alaska canceled its online tests early this month, due to interruptions caused when a construction worker accidentally cut a fiber optic cable thousands of miles away.

Tennessee’s suspension means that many tenets of test-based accountability will be paused for one year — a leap for a state that insisted on using the new test as the basis for teacher evaluations and student grades, even as the U.S. Department of Education offered flexibility for states making the transition to new tests. High school students’ test scores will be the only ones eligible to be used in teacher evaluations, but only if they boost a teacher’s score, and only if teachers choose to include them.

"Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

“Challenges with this test vendor have not diverted us from our goals as a state,” McQueen said. “Tennessee has made historic and tremendous growth over the past several years. Higher standards and increased accountability have been a key part of this progress. Our work toward an aligned assessment plays a critical role in ensuring that all students are continuing to meet our high expectations and are making progress on their path to postsecondary and the workforce.”

The Department of Education is working with the Tennessee Office of Procurement to expedite the process to find a new test vendor in time for testing next spring.

Though Measurement Inc. already operated under an abbreviated timeline, with only one year to develop and deliver TNReady, McQueen said she is confident that the next round will be better.

“While certainly you have a short timeline, we believe we will have a good test next year, and we will have a strong vendor relationship,” she said at a news conference in Nashville.

She said that, despite chronic challenges with TNReady, Tennessee has a strong foundation for a good test moving forward.

“We have a good test this year. It’s a better test than we’ve had in Tennessee in the past,” she said, adding that whatever vendor the state uses next will incorporate questions developed by Measurement Inc.

“Next year’s test will be better than this year’s test,” she promised.

Gov. Bill Haslam also took an optimistic view of the situation. “The failure of the testing vendor to deliver the tests and meet its own obligations does not take away from the fact that Tennessee has created our own, higher standards, we have an improved assessment fully aligned with those standards, and we remain committed going forward to measuring student performance fairly and ensuring accountability for those results,” Haslam said in a statement.

In an interview this week with Chalkbeat, Measurement Inc. president Henry Scherich said that McQueen’s decision in February to shift from an online test to a paper-and-pencil version put the testing company in a difficult, and even impossible, situation.

McQueen countered Wednesday that the state’s contract with Measurement Inc. always had provisions for paper tests in the case of technical troubles.

Though the state’s original contract with Measurement Inc. was for $108 million, Tennessee has only paid the Durham, N.C.-based company $1.6 million so far for content.

Public reaction to the state’s announcement erupted quickly, with many TNReady critics feeling vindicated, including Tullahoma City School board member Jessica Fogarty, who created an online petition asking the state to suspend Part II testing before it began. More than 2,000 Tennesseans signed the petition.

Fogarty said the state should have terminated the contract sooner. She also noted that the state’s next testmaker, like Measurement Inc., will have only one year to develop a test — a timeline that she called unrealistic.

“If anything, we should learn from our mistakes from this year … especially knowing our state standards will change for next year,” Fogarty said. “There’s more to be resolved with testing in Tennessee. … There’s still a lot more questions to be answered before we can be confident about the future.”

"I think the pause will be taken as a relief at this point."Wayne Miller, Tennessee Organization of of School Superintendents

Others supported the commissioner’s decision.

“I think the pause will be taken as a relief at this point,” said Wayne Miller, director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “With all the accountability that’s centered around the outcome of student assessments, that’s created certainly a less-than-ideal environment.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, expressed disappointment that many third-graders through eighth-graders graders won’t be able to gauge their performance this spring. “Parents and teachers deserve to know how much progress their students have made over the year, and all Tennesseans deserve an annual snapshot of the progress schools and school districts are making,” Woodson said.

District leaders quickly began sharing the news.

Educators and policymakers chimed in too:

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

Chalkbeat staffers Laura Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report.

previewing TNReady

Why Tennessee’s high school test scores, out this week, matter more — and less — than usual

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

When scores dropped last year for most Tennessee high school students under a new state test, leaders spoke of “setting a new baseline” under a harder assessment aligned to more rigorous standards.

This week, Tennesseans will see if last year’s scores — in which nearly three-quarters of high schoolers performed below grade level — was in fact just a reset moment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning to release the highly anticipated second year of high school scores under TNReady, which replaced the state’s TCAP tests in 2015-16. (Students in grades 3-8 will get TNReady scores for the first time this fall; last year, their tests were canceled because of a series of testing failures.)

Here’s what you need to know about this week’s data dump, which will focus on statewide scores.

1. Last year’s low scores weren’t a big surprise.

Not only was it the first time Tennessee students took TNReady, it also was the first time that they were being tested on new academic standards in math and language arts known as the Common Core, which reached Tennessee classrooms in 2012.

Other states that switched to Common Core-aligned exams also saw their scores plummet. In New York, for example, the proportion of students who scored proficient or higher in reading dropped precipitously in 2013 during the first year of a new test for grades 3-8.

McQueen sought last year to prepare Tennessee for the same experience. After all, she said, the state was moving away from a multiple-choice test to one that challenges students’ higher-order thinking skills. Plus, while Tennessee students had been posting strong scores on the state’s own exam, they had struggled on national tests such as the ACT, raising questions about whether the previous state test was a good measure of students’ skills.

“We expected scores to be lower in the first year of a more rigorous assessment,” McQueen said after only 21 percent of high school students scored on or above grade level in math, while 30 percent tested ready in English and reading.

2. It’s expected that this year’s scores will rise … and it will be a bad sign if they don’t.

Over and over, state officials assured Tennesseans that 2016 was just the start.

“[We] expect that scores will rebound over time as all students grow to meet these higher expectations — just as we have seen in the past,” McQueen said.

She was referring to the state’s shift to Diploma Standards in 2009, when passing rates on end-of-course tests dropped by almost half. But in subsequent years, those scores rose steadily in a “sawtooth pattern” that has been documented over and over when states adopt new assessments and students and teachers grow accustomed to them.

That includes New York, where after the worrisome results in 2013, the percentage of students passing started inching up the following year, especially in math.

In Tennessee, this year’s high school scores will provide the first significant data point in establishing whether the state is on the same track. Higher scores would put the state on an upward trajectory, and suggest that students are increasingly proficient in the skills that the test is measuring. Scores that remain flat or go down would raise questions about whether teachers and students are adjusting to more rigorous standards.

3. There’s lots more scores to come.

This week’s statewide high school scores will kick off a cascade of other TNReady results that will be released in the weeks and months ahead.

Next comes district- and school-level high school scores, which will be shared first with school systems before being released to the public. That’s likely to happen in August.

In the fall, Tennessee will release its scores for students in grades 3-8, who took TNReady for the first time this year after the 2016 testing debacle. While testing went better this year, the state’s new testing company needed extra time to score the exams, because additional work goes into setting “cut scores” each time a new test is given.

A group of educators just concluded the process of reviewing the test data to recommend what scores should fall into the state’s four new categories for measuring performance: below grade level, approaching grade level, on grade level, or mastered. The State Board of Education will review and vote on those recommendations next month.

4. This year’s scores are lower stakes than usual, but that probably won’t last.

For years, Tennessee has been a leader in using test scores to judge students, teachers, and schools. Like most states, it uses the data to determine which schools are so low-performing that they should be closed or otherwise overhauled. It also crunches scores through a complicated “value-added” algorithm designed to assess how much learning that teachers contribute to their students — an approach that it has mostly stuck with as value-added measures have fallen out of favor across the nation. And unusually, the state exam scores are also supposed to factor into final student grades, this year counting for 10 percent.

But the rocky road to the new tests has temporarily diminished how much the scores count. Because preliminary scores arrived late this spring, most districts opted to grade students on the basis of their schoolwork alone.

And because of the testing transition, the scores won’t be given as much weight in this year’s teacher evaluations — an adjustment that lawmakers made to alleviate anxiety about the changes. Test scores will contribute only 10 percent to teachers’ ratings. Depending on the subject, that proportion is supposed to rise to between 15 and 25 percent by 2018-19.

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.