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.

Are Children Learning

More Memphis area students are graduating high school. But what does that mean?

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The 2018 spring graduation for the Memphis Virtual School was held May 22 in the Hamilton High School auditorium.

The number of students graduating from high schools in Shelby County and across the state has been rising for the last 10 years, but recent allegations of widespread improper grade changes in Memphis last year called into question if graduation rates were marred.

The results of a deeper probe of seven schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month. But Shelby County Schools officials said a number of strategies have contributed to the district’s growing number of graduates and they believe better monitoring of grade changes would protect the integrity of those numbers, including sudden jumps.

“It’s our goal to aggressively increase academic performance and graduation rates at a more rapid pace, and we’ve implemented a number of strategies to do so,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to see jumps in graduation rates alone as an indicator of improper grading practices.”

Grade changes had an impact on how many students graduated at Trezevant High School, the first school implicated in the controversy. Fifty-three students over four years obtained a diploma without passing the necessary classes, an investigation found.

Leaving high school with a diploma greatly increases a student’s chances of finding a job with a living wage and avoiding jail. But Tennessee policymakers have been pushing for more education beyond high school since college graduates and those with job certifications through technical colleges and similar schools have an even better chance of higher incomes later in life.

School districts often tie student performance to their graduation rates, citing better academics as one factor in rising graduation rates. In addition, federal law requires states to report their districts’ rates every year to monitor if some groups of students are lagging behind their peers.

Marisa Cannata, who consults with districts through Vanderbilt University on how to improve high schools, said getting a high school diploma “doesn’t mean that they’re college-ready.” The only thing the number of students who graduated truly measures is “accumulating credits in a timely manner.”

“I think of them as only one indicator of how well a school is serving a student,” she told Chalkbeat. “True improvement is going to be reflective in multiple indicators.”

Nonetheless, the district’s rising graduation trends reflect a similar upward trajectory for state and national graduation rates. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the total number in a high school cohort.

Tennessee is ahead of the pack in figuring out how to get more students to stay in and complete high school, said Jennifer DePaoli, the lead author on a recent national report analyzing federal graduation rate data.

“Tennessee is a state that we would say has really proven itself when it comes to raising student graduation rates,” she told Chalkbeat, adding it “still has some room to grow.”

In 2013, Tennessee was applauded in a national graduation report for outpacing the national average in nearly every category, including students from low-income families and students with disabilities. But in DePaoli’s report released last week, Tennessee’s growth in graduating its students has slowed, and has the 8th highest percentage of black students who didn’t graduate on time. The state’s graduation rate for students from poor families still ranks among the highest in the nation, however.

Before 2013, most students in the former suburban district, commonly referred to as legacy Shelby County Schools, consistently exceeded the state and national average with as many as 96 percent of students graduating on time. The number of students graduating from Memphis City Schools, which dissolved in 2013 after city school board members voted to consolidate with the county district, lagged behind the national and state average, hovering between 62 and 72 percent.

Legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools graduation rate compared to U.S. (2008-2012)

PHOTO: Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Since then, more students have graduated from high school. After the merger in 2013, the county split again into seven school systems.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to have 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2025. The district, which is the largest in Tennessee, now sits at 79.6 percent for the class of 2017. Official numbers for the class of 2018 are expected to be released this fall.

Shelby County Schools, municipal districts, and the Achievement School District compared to U.S. (2013-2017)

PHOTO: Source: Tennessee Department of Education

In the middle of all that, Tennessee raised the bar for students to graduate. The state had been stung in 2007 by a national report saying the existing state standards were weak and misled parents about how their students ranked against their peers nationwide. So, Tennessee started phasing in new graduation requirements in 2009 that increased the number of credits needed to graduate and introduced the current end-of-course exams.

Also, the state changed how schools and teachers are evaluated. In 2009, Memphis City Schools got a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul how the district recruits, trains, and evaluates its teacher workforce.

In 2010, the Tennessee Department of Education got a $500 million federal grant to recreate how it measures school success and partially tie teacher evaluation scores to student test results.

The state-run Achievement School District was born from that grant and started taking over low-performing schools in 2012. (The district didn’t have graduating seniors at high schools until 2014.)

In recent years, Shelby County Schools began to use data to help target students who might be at risk of dropping out. That kind of early warning system is part of a growing national effort to use mounds of student data to remove barriers to graduating, such as getting help with schoolwork, or pointing families to community resources to reduce absences early in a student’s high school career.

The district has also added reading specialists for ninth grade students who are behind and night and online classes for high school students so they wouldn’t have to wait until summer to retake failed courses. And before a student fails a class, district leaders have increased the number of offerings during the semester for a student to recover their grade.

In Memphis-area schools, 11 of the 48 in the region have fewer students graduating now than they did in 2008. Four of them dropped more than 5 percentage points:

  • Wooddale High School
  • Raleigh Egypt High School
  • Bolton High School
  • Ridgeway High School

Though there are 13 schools that have seen significant growth in the number of students who have graduated since 2008, they haven’t kept up with the district’s average ACT score, a common indicator of a student’s readiness for college.

But graduation rates and the ACT don’t actually measure the same things, said DePaoli.

“A lot of people would like to argue if graduation rates go up, we should be seeing gains in ACT scores and things like that,” she said. “We would like to see those things track together, but I don’t think there’s enough alignment there.”

Still, she said, “if kids aren’t getting higher scores on the ACT but the graduation rate is increasing, there is something to be really fearful of.”

Five Memphis area schools have now exceeded the district average for students graduating. Here are the 13 with the most growth:

  • B. T. Washington High School*
  • Oakhaven High School*
  • Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School (formerly Frayser High School)**
  • Hamilton High School
  • Sheffield High School
  • Westwood High School
  • Kingsbury High School
  • Manassas High School
  • East High School*
  • Craigmont High School*
  • Fairley High School**
  • Mitchell High School
  • Whitehaven High School*

*Schools that now exceeds Shelby County Schools’ graduation rate
** Taken over by the Achievement School District in 2014

Below you can look at your high school’s graduation rates over the years.

What went down

‘There was no cyber attack,’ investigator says of Tennessee’s online testing shutdown

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Questar’s unauthorized change of an online testing tool — not a possible cyber attack, as earlier reported by the company — was responsible for shutting down Tennessee’s computerized exams on their second day this spring, the state’s chief investigator reported Wednesday.

An independent probe determined that “there was no cyber attack,” nor was any student data compromised, when thousands of students could not log onto the online exam known as TNReady on April 17.

Instead, investigators said, Questar was mostly responsible for this year’s testing miscues. The main culprit was a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool designed to let students turn text into speech if they need audible instructions.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson reviewed early findings of his office’s internal review and the external investigation by a company hired by the Education Department during a legislative hearing in Nashville.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told lawmakers that Tennessee is docking Questar about $2.5 million this year out of its $30 million contract because of the online problems that plagued many students and schools during the three-week testing window.

Payments being withheld are punitive, as well as to cover the state’s costs to address the problems, she said, adding that other discounts could follow.

Last week, McQueen announced that the state plans to launch a new search this fall for one or more testing companies to take over TNReady beginning in the 2019-20 school year. She said a track record of successful online testing is a must.

The text-to-speech tool worked fine last fall when a smaller number of high school students tested online. But the state said Questar made a “significant and unauthorized change” to that feature before the launch of spring testing that affects the vast majority of Tennessee students.  

“We now know this decision led to the severity of other issues we experienced during online testing,” the Education Department said in a statement.

House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. Jeremy Faison asked the comptroller to review the state’s contract with Questar, particularly related to reports of a possible cyber attack. Wilson’s office also looked into other technical snafus that disrupted student testing for days, prompting the legislature to pass emergency laws that make this year’s scores inconsequential.

“We believe that the student testing issues occurred primarily because of how Questar set the student assessment system up to work,” said Brent Rumbley, the comptroller’s information systems audit manager.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies during Wednesday’s hearing, where specialists in the state comptroller’s office also testified.

On the second day of exams, Rumbley said, those issues manifested themselves in a suspiciously high volume of internet traffic to the testing platform.

“That’s what led the Department of Education and Questar to believe that there may have been a cyber attack,” he told lawmakers. “This traffic eventually shut the system down.”

Even though Questar upgraded the processing capability of its equipment in response, students and educators continued to report problems logging in, staying online, and submitting tests until Questar turned off the text-to-speech tool beginning May 1.

The comptroller’s office also found that Questar was ill-prepared to handle the fallout from the technical glitches. For instance, the company struggled to manually recover the high number of tests that students couldn’t submit online. And school personnel calling the customer service line experienced wait times as long as 60 minutes, prompting many to just hang up.

New details emerged Wednesday about other testing problems, too.

On April 25, a Questar employee “inadvertently overrode” custom rosters statewide that allowed schools to match students with available testing devices. “As a result, teachers and test coordinators had to scramble to get students the tests they should take,” Rumbley said.

The next day, more problems erupted when an internet cable was severed by a dump truck in a traffic accident in Hawkins County.

“According to the vendor that manages the fiber optic line, 21 districts were without internet from approximately two to four hours,” said Rumbley, adding that neither Questar nor the department could have prevented the outage that day.

Lawmakers will get an expanded look at the Education Department and its testing program in November when Wilson’s office presents the results of a year-long performance audit, along with findings from a massive survey of Tennessee educators about TNReady.

The two-hour hearing gave lawmakers a platform to take jabs at McQueen and her department for their handling of testing.

Rep. Bo Mitchell admonished the Education Department for tweeting on the second day of testing that Questar “may have experienced a deliberate attack” that morning.

“This gets into the public trust and throwing out information to the public from the Department of Education that the failure was a hack … Whose decision was that to put that out into the public domain without any proof?” asked Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville.

McQueen clarified that the department never used the word “hack,” but reported that the testing system was experiencing a “pattern of data that was consistent with a cyber attack.” The description was based on what was known as the time, she said.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, said Questar’s $2.5 million penalty “seems like a smack on the wrist” given the disruption caused by the company’s mistakes.

McQueen responded that the state is withholding almost $11 million invoiced by Questar for online testing as it continues negotiations. She added that the state’s biggest testing expenses stem from printing and transit costs for paper materials used by about half of its students this year. The state is transitioning to computerized testing and has decided to slow the switch for a second time in the wake of this year’s challenges.

Justin P. Wilson

Questar officials told Chalkbeat last week that the company plans to pursue the state’s new contract next year, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh told McQueen that he doesn’t want the Minnesota-based company involved after it completes its current contract.

“I don’t think we can let Questar get in the ballgame again,” said the Ripley Democrat.

The proposal will be competitively bid, said Wilson, adding that Questar’s past performance will be taken into account.

For more on how Tennessee got here, read why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.