Are Children Learning

Is Tennessee ready for TNReady? Five things to know about the state’s new standardized test

PHOTO: TN.gov
In less than ten months, Tennessee will debut a new standardized test to replace the TCAP.

This spring marks the last time Tennessee students will take the Tennesssee Comprehensive Assessment Program, fondly known as TCAP tests. Beginning next school year, the state’s standardized exam will be “TNReady,” a test being developed by North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.

Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education say the new assessment will be aligned with Tennessee classroom standards — whatever those end up being. But whether the Tennessee General Assembly decides to keep or replace the Common Core State Standards, the new test will roll out in only 10 months, when high school students on block schedules sit down for exams in November.

Here’s what we know so far about the new testing program:

1) It can be administered online or by paper. Guidelines are being drafted about which districts will use an online version of the test, and which will use paper and pencil, according to Emily Freitag, assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction, who last week updated a joint meeting of the State Board of Education and Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Several states already have moved their testing online, and Tennessee was supposed to do the same this year by administering the PARCC test, an online Common Core-aligned test with open-ended questions. However, the legislature nixed the transition last spring in a pushback to Common Core, and instead mandated Tennessee students take the multiple-choice TCAP another year. Although districts have been preparing for an online test via PARCC, concerns remain that many districts, especially in rural areas, don’t have the technology to administer it.

2) It’s “adaptable” to new standards. A common complaint about TCAP has been that it doesn’t align with the state’s new standards, which were phased in from 2010 to 2014. A big selling point of the new test is that it finally can assess if students are meeting those standards.

However, whether those standards for math and English remain in place is still up for debate – literally. The Common Core State Standards are under review, and the legislature is considering a bill that would repeal them. If that happens, there won’t be much time for tentmakers to go back to the drawing board. Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner for data and research, assured last week’s joint session that the new test will adapt to whatever standards Tennessee ends up with. “We recognize that we are in a standards review process,” Towns said. “TNReady is going to give us the flexibility to align with standards, whatever those may be at the end of that process.”

3) The writing test will become part of the English/language arts test. This week, Tennessee students sat down for their TCAP writing tests for the last time — kind of. TNReady will have a separate written component, but the score will be part of students’ English/language arts score, not separate. The writing-intensive part of TNReady will be taken in February, as the writing test is currently done. The rest of the English assessment will be administered at the end of the year.

4) All sections of TNReady will involve writing. Gone are the days of all-multiple choice tests. Even the math TNReady will require students to explain some of their answers in writing. This could help students, since they now will be able to receive partial credit for showing their work in math. They also will have to rely less on calculators during the math assessment. The English exam will have several open-ended questions, in addition to the writing section.

5) There will be math assessments for both traditional high school math — Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II — and integrated math. Last month, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools announced that it will join four other Tennessee districts teaching integrated math, which teaches the same concepts as geometry and algebra, but integrates them across three years. A TCAP for integrated math doesn’t exist, and the move to have a statewide assessment for integrated math might encourage more districts to join in that course of study.

For more background on Measurement Inc., the company developing the test, read our past coverage.

Did we answer your questions about the state’s new testing tool? Are you ready for TNReady, or do you have reservations? Share your comments below.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly decline — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores mostly decreased this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance dipped in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off in this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters.”

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on student scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered in the midst of testing that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”