Reset

Questar wins contract to develop Tennessee test to replace failed TNReady

After a rocky year of standardized testing, Tennessee is starting fresh with Questar, a large-scale test maker that will begin administering the state’s assessments for grades 3-11 in the upcoming school year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday that the state plans to award a two-year contract to the Minneapolis-based company, with an option to extend the contract for up to five years, at a cost of about $30 million annually.

The state also is not racing back into online testing. Having seen its testing program grind to a halt this year due to a sweeping failed rollout of its TNReady assessment, Tennessee will phase in online testing over a three-year period, McQueen said.

For the upcoming school year, the state will administer paper-and-pencil tests for grades 3-8. For high school end-of-course exams, the department will work with Questar to provide an online option “if both schools and testing platform demonstrate early proof of successful online administration,” according to a news release. Districts also will have the option to choose paper-based assessments for high school students.

“Students, teachers and parents deserve a better testing experience in Tennessee, and we believe today’s announcement is another step in the right direction,” McQueen said in the release.

The choice of Questar gives the Minneapolis company only months to work with before the first testing happens in Tennessee. No time can be wasted: some high school students will need an assessment by as soon as November, and the federal government requires annual testing.

McQueen said Questar has a track record for working on a short timeline. With only a few snafus, the company successfully administered New York’s assessments for grades 3-8 to about 1.3 million students after winning the contract last summer. It also developed the Mississippi annual assessment on a timeline similar to Tennessee’s in 2015.

“Questar has recent experience developing a large-scale test thoughtfully and urgently,” McQueen said. “We believe it is the right partner to collaborate with … to develop assessments that are meaningful and measure what our students truly know and understand.”

In addition, Questar will have a foundation on which to work. A State Department of Education team began crafting next year’s assessment earlier this spring after McQueen fired Measurement Inc., a small North Carolina-based company that state officials blamed for the botched rollout of its TNReady assessment for math and English, as well as its science and social studies TCAPs.


For a clearer picture of what went wrong with TNReady, check out a Chalkbeat analysis of emails that reveal months of missteps leading up to the failed online testing debut.


The choice of Questar was not surprising. The department wanted a vendor who has had success developing statewide online assessments. Few vendors have done that; even fewer have done so successfully. Measurement Inc. had more than 40 years of experience but had never rolled out a statewide assessment program on the scale requested by Tennessee.

Questar will be charged with developing assessments for grades 3-8 in math, English, science and social studies, with an eye on transitioning the state assessments online.

Candice McQueen
PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

During an afternoon conference call with reporters, McQueen said the decision to walk back into online testing instead of running has nothing to do with Questar but more to do with Tennesseans’ comfort level with computerized testing in the wake of TNReady’s online failure. The state will begin the shift with its older students, who have more digital experience.

Initial reaction to this week’s announcement focused on the state’s new timeline for online testing.

“It is encouraging to learn that the department has listened to feedback from educators and district leaders and will be phasing in the transition to online testing more slowly and deliberately,” said a statement from the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

State officials said they expect to finalize its contract with Questar next week. Earlier this spring, the department hired Questar as the state’s vendor for an optional second-grade assessment.

The State Department of Education used an emergency procurement process to select Questar for its biggest contract, working on an expedited timeline to find a qualified company in time to develop next year’s test. Before deciding, state education officials had conversations with multiple vendors, including Educational Testing Services, Data Recognition Corp., Measured Progress, Pearson, ACT and Houghton Mifflin.

State officials emphasized that they did their homework, having “engaged with the vendor’s references as well as independently reaching out to the other states that have contracted with Questar,” according to the release. “Independently verifying the vendor’s work was a priority throughout the vetting process.”

The relationship with Measurement Inc., which was selected before McQueen came on board, was mostly troubled. McQueen waited to pull the plug on the contract, though, in deference to students and teachers, she told Chalkbeat last week.

The Tennessee Office of General Services selected Measurement Inc. out of five interested vendors in 2014, awarding the company a $108 million contract. Prior to 2014, Tennessee contracted with Pearson for most of its end-of-year tests. The state created an emergency contract with Pearson, worth about $18.5 million, a month after firing Measurement Inc.

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

The timeline below tracks the twists and turns of Tennessee’s testing journey.

*Chalkbeat reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

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.”