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.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.