Shifting strategy

Here’s Tennessee’s new game plan for standardized testing next year

PHOTO: Sarah Garland
Under the Tennessee Department of Education's testing timeline for 2016-17, students will be able to take practice tests online beginning in early November, while end-of-year assessments will be in the spring.

Next spring, Tennessee’s third-graders will spend at least three and half hours less on end-of-year standardized tests.

That’s among the concrete details provided by the State Department of Education in a lengthy Q&A Thursday about next year’s assessments in Tennessee.

Department leaders also announced they have finalized the state’s contract with Questar, the Minnesota-based company introduced last week as Tennessee’s new test maker after firing its previous vendor in April.

In light of this spring’s tumultuous testing period, which included canceling tests altogether for grades 3-8, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the department is presenting as many details as possible about the timeline and structure of the next year’s tests, with the hopes of “changing the tone around assessment” in Tennessee.

“We want to be responsive to the feedback we hear. … We continue to apologize for last year’s experience. Our goal is to make this positive experience,” she said during a conference call with district officials, news media, and Questar CEO Jamie Candee.

Candee spoke briefly about how Questar plans to build trust in Tennessee and addressed concerns about the short timeline the testing company has to deliver assessments. Fall high school testing is scheduled to start Nov. 28.

“We know the responsibility we have to your educators and students is a very important one,” Candee said. “We are confident (we can) deliver (the assessments) under your timeline.”

Here are some of the highlights released Thursday. The department’s full Q&A on next year’s test is available here.

Students will spend less time taking standardized tests, and testing will be confined to the end of the school year.

End-of-year testing will be reduced by 30 percent, addressing complaints of overtesting from parents and loss of instructional time from teachers.

State officials announced in April that Part I of the math test will be dropped. Now  it’s dropping Part I for all four subjects, meaning almost all TCAP testing will occur in late April and early May, unlike last year when students also tested in February and March. During that window, students will take the tests in a series of shorter parts, some as short as 30 minutes, so they can fit into regular classroom periods.

Teachers will have planning materials next week — and they won’t look that different from last year’s.

Teachers have been waiting longer than usual for “blueprints” that summarize what will be on each assessments, so they can plan their school year which begins in early August.

The blueprints will be available next week, said Tammy Shelton, the department’s director of content and resources. The material and standards assessed will be similar to last year’s, she said, though the blueprints will reflect the new structure.  Practice test questions will be available in August, and students will be able to take practice tests online beginning in early November.

For the most part, tests will be taken with pencil and paper, but some high schools might choose to test their students online.

After last year’s testing experience, in which the online platform buckled on the first day of testing, department officials are easing into things. High schools may have the option to take the test online this year, but only if Questar’s testing platform demonstrates “early proof of successful online administration” in Tennessee schools during practice runs.

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