Are Children Learning

Who will develop Tennessee’s next standardized test? Here are some contenders

Colonial Middle students practiced an online writing assessment last year which is more Common Core-aligned.

What standardized test will the students of Tennessee take in the spring of 2016 instead of the TCAP? That’s the million dollar question — or, rather, the almost $60 million question a state-appointed committee is trying to answer right now.

That’s how much Tennessee’s contract with Pearson for third through eighth grade tests from 2008 to 2013 was worth. The tests are used to determine everything from students’ final  grades to whether a school is eligible to be taken over by the state, and the state is looking for a vendor to craft new tests that are tied to the state’s new standards, the Common Core.

Originally Tennessee was supposed to roll out a test that’s being developed by a national nonprofit, PARCC, this year. But, as part of a slew of legislation against the Common Core this spring — born largely out of desire for increased local control — the legislature voted to stick with the TCAP for 2015-2016, and open up a bidding process for a new test vendor. Applications were due Sept. 12, and according to the request for proposal, a new vendor will be chosen  in November.

The state would not disclose the membership of the committee that will choose the state’s next test, and its Department of General Services denied an open records request from Chalkbeat for the list of vendors who applied to write the test. But two big test-makers, Pearson and CTB-McGraw Hill, say they submitted bids, and a number of other companies could be angling for the project. Here’s a list of probable candidates and what, if anything, makes each of them contenders for the contract.

Did we miss any? Do you think any testing vendors are particularly worthy to create the next assessment? Let us know in the comments.

Note: PARCC and Smarter Balanced, non-profit consortia of states  formed with Race to the Top money, can’t apply on their own behalf, because, until this month, their federal funding did not allow them to spend money applying for new contracts. Representatives from both consortia said that it is possible that other companies applied to implement the consortia tests.


  • The basics: ACT, formerly American College Testing, is a nonprofit best known for its college entrance exam, taken by more students each year than the College Board’s SAT. In recent years, ACT has expanded its portfolio of products to include ACT Aspire, assessments for younger students. Alabama uses Aspire as the state standardized tests for students in third grade and up.
  • What its tests look like: According to its website, ACT Aspire includes “selected response,” or multiple-choice questions, as well as “constructed response,” or open-ended questions. At least some questions are “technologically enhanced,” meaning they require the use of a computer to answer. For example, a student might drag events into order with their computer mouse. You can find sample test items here.
  • Application status: An ACT spokesperson would not say whether the company had applied to make Tennessee’s tests.
  • Why it could be a contender — or not: Tennessee already has a closer relationship with ACT than most states: It is one of 12 states that requires high school juniors to take the ACT. The Aspire tests fit many of Tennessee’s needs: it is online, has open response questions, and is Common Core-aligned. But the company has focused on tests for young students, and Tennessee is looking for a vendor to make tests for all grades.


  • The basics: The nonprofit American Institutes for Research is a global research and evaluation organization whose star is rising after comprising just 6 percent of the American testing market in 2012, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. Florida — which like Tennessee belongs to the PARCC testing consortium — picked AIR to make its tests, and nine other states have contracts with the company. The organization is fighting hard for Common Core testing business: It already conducts research and develops test items for Smarter Balanced, another Common Core test consortium, and it is fighting PARCC’s decision to contract with Pearson.
  • What its tests look like: AIR’s website champions online tests, saying such assessments can “be intuitive to use, cost-effective, and more powerful than a paper test.” Its website includes a section on constructed response scoring but does not include sample questions. The non-profit produces both fixed tests and adaptive tests, which adjust the difficulty of test questions according to students’ responses.
  • Application status: An AIR spokesman said he could not comment about whether the company is trying to work in Tennessee.
  • Why it could be a contender — or notAIR’s work with Smarter Balanced and desire to work with PARCC suggest it’s eager to develop the type of online assessments the state department of education wants. But even though the company is beginning to work on a test for Florida, it still has a limited track record in the testing sector.


  • The basics: Until this June, Tennessee was part of the PARCC consortium, along with several other states. That’s when the General Assembly passed a law mandating the state use TCAP in 2014-2015, prompting Tennessee to pull out of the consortium and issue the request for proposal for a new testing vendor. Tennessee education officials were involved in developing the test, along with officials from other member states, but PARCC contracted services to Pearson in May. PARCC was created and  federally funded specifically for the purpose of creating the kind of Common Core-aligned test the state asked for in its request.
  • Application status: A spokesperson for PARCC said that he believes at least one vendor is applying to implement PARCC in Tennessee.
  • What its tests look like: PARCC is entirely computer based, with a mix of multiple choice and open ended questions. Samples can be found here.
  • Why it could be a contender — or not: State education officials said they were dismayed that legislators forced the state out of PARCC. A contract with a PARCC vendor could be a ticket back into the consortium — and it might also save Tennessee money, since many fixed costs, like development and scoring, can be shared with other states. Also, teachers and students in Tennessee have already prepared for the PARCC assessment, and officials from some districts, including Shelby County and Metropolitan Nashville Schools, asked if they could take the PARCC in the spring instead of the TCAP. But opting for a PARCC assessment would be a solid repudiation of what legislators demanded, which could have negative consequences for state education officials.


  • The basics: Pearson — whose testing division is part of a much bigger, British-based publishing and education corporation — accounted for about 38 percent of testing contracts with states in 2012, making it the biggest testing vendor in the country. Some of those contracts were with Tennessee, where it developed the TCAP. The state paid the company more than $57 million to handle high school end of course exams from 2010 to 2015. Pearson has moved quickly into the Common Core testing game, winning a contract to build a Common Core-aligned test for New York that was rolled out in 2013.
  • Application status: A spokesperson confirmed the company submitted an application for the testing contract.
  • What its tests look like: Pearson has a large range of assessment products. Its Common Core-aligned test for New York is on paper, but its website says it delivers seven million assessments online each year, too, and is developing automated scoring for written responses.
  • Why it could be a contender — or notTennessee has an established relationship with the company — and the company wants to keep it that way, maintaining a lobbyist on Capitol Hill in Nashville, according to the state’s lobbying registry. Because Pearson already developed a Common Core-aligned test for New York with many of the features Tennessee is looking for, the company has experience with an online exam from development to scoring. PARCC  is also contracting Pearson’s services. But the company has repeatedly drawn fire, including in New York, where in 2012, state officials called Pearson out for its error rate, and last year, it was penalized for botching gifted screening exams in New York City. While New York has no specific plans to stop working with Pearson, critics of the company there have continued to attack the company as representing corporate interests involved in the transition to new standards, and Tennessee might want to avoid the firestorm. 

McGraw-Hill Education

  • The basics: McGraw-Hill is one of the largest educational publishing and digital learning companies in the world. It made up 18 percent of the testing market in 2012, and is developing a Common-Core aligned test for Georgia, which, like Tennessee, withdrew from PARCC. (Georgia pulled out because state officials said the cost of PARCC was too high.) Smarter Balanced has also awarded McGraw-Hill a contract. McGraw-Hill has had some technical issues with online assessments in Oklahoma and Indiana in which students were knocked offline during tests. Oklahoma severed its relationship with the company because of the glitches, and Indiana is, like Tennessee, is looking for other possible vendors.
  • Application status: A spokesperson for the company confirmed they submitted an application to Tennessee.
  • What its tests look like: Like Pearson, McGraw-Hill has a large range of assessment products. Their Terra Nova line of assessments for grades 1-12 are Common Core aligned. The website for the line says it has technology-enabled questions, but it is taken with a pencil and paper. Samples can be found here.
  • Why it could be a contender — or not: It’s a testing company with a big presence in the United States, and the test McGraw-Hill is developing for Georgia is similar to what Tennessee asked for. But like Pearson, it’s an established presence in the testing market, and Tennessee officials have signaled that they would be happy to see big changes.

Smarter Balanced

  • About: Like PARCC, Smarter Balanced is a consortium of states formed by the U.S. Department of Education with Race to the Top funding with the specific intention of developing a Common Core-aligned assessment.
  • Application status: A spokeswoman for the consortium said she was unsure if any vendors had applied to implement Smarter Balanced.
  • What its tests look like: Smarter Balanced is all computer-based, and, like some AIR assessments, is adaptive. Sample questions can be found here.
  • Why it could be a contender — or notThe benefits are similar to PARCC’s: Certain costs are fixed since it’s a member for a consortium, and it was designed specifically with the Common Core standards in mind. But Tennessee entered the Common Core era in PARCC’s camp, not Smarter Balanced’s.

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.