Not Ready for TNReady

Online testing fiasco sends Tennessee ed officials back to the drawing board

On a day that was supposed to mark a new era of online testing in Tennessee, a major technology failure led State Department of Education officials to scrap their new online exam and revert to paper-and-pencil tests.

Within minutes after some schools statewide began administering the TNReady test developed by North Carolina-based Measurement Inc., the company’s online platform experienced a severe network outage, prompting state officials to order districts to stop the testing immediately if they were experiencing technical difficulties.

By the end of the day, the issues not resolved, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen emailed district directors to stop the process altogether because, she said, “we are not confident in the system’s ability to perform consistently.”

The admission and change of plans are a major blow to McQueen and her Education Department, which have worked with Measurement Inc. since October 2014 to develop a new assessment that moves Tennessee schools to online testing and also is aligned with Tennessee’s current Common Core standards. Even before then, the state had prepared for years for the switch to online testing.

“Like you, we are incredibly disappointed that the MIST platform was not accessible to schools across the state as the Part I testing window opened,” McQueen wrote directors. “We understand that the shift to paper and pencil testing has many scheduling implications for your schools, teachers, and students. We thank you for your patience and cooperation as we transition to a test medium that we are confident will allow all students to show what they know.”

Just last week, state education leaders briefed reporters about contingency plans if technical glitches or system failures occurred. The plan was to give individual districts discretion in ordering backup paper-based tests, plus flexibility in taking the test outside the testing window, scheduled for Feb. 8 through March 4.

State education officials never hinted that a technical failure of this magnitude was a possibility. In fact, they expressed optimism in the wake of months of capacity tests, significant investments in server capacity, and on-the-ground visits to local districts that tested the program.

But after Monday’s fiasco and concerned about more disruptions, state officials didn’t even attempt to salvage TNReady’s online exam for the second part of the testing window, scheduled for April 18 through May 13.

“Despite the many improvements the department has helped to make to the system in recent months and based on the events of this morning, we are not confident in the system’s ability to perform consistently,” McQueen wrote. “In the best interest of our students and to protect instructional time, we cannot continue with Measurement Incorporated’s online testing platform in its current state.”

Even with years and months of preparation, teachers had been increasingly skeptical of whether the state and their districts were ready for TNReady.

“Any teacher would have told you there was going to be a problem,” said Mary Holden, a Nashville parent and English III teacher at Centennial High School in Franklin. “Hello, wake up! It is not rocket science to figure out there are going to be issues with online testing the first time you do it.”

Molly Handler, a fourth-grade teacher at Glenn Enhanced Option Elementary School in Nashville, said glitches on practice tests throughout the year prepared her for the worst.

“Honestly, it’s not a huge source of stress because we knew (there would be problems), and there was nothing we could do about it,” she said. “So we really just focused on teaching.”

In Memphis, the delay left teachers scrambling to restructure lesson plans for the next few weeks, said Ryan Winn, a seventh-grade math teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty moving forward,” he said.

A full week before the testing window began, officials of RePublic Schools — a Nashville-based charter organization known for its expansive technical resources and also openly supportive of the state’s transition to TNReady — outlined concerns in a letter to McQueen. They said half of their students were unable to log on to the testing platform only days before the test, making them wary of the chances that students statewide would be able to log on.

“Here’s what we believe should happen: Schools should be confident that they can administer the tests on any day or days within the testing window that work best for their students and teachers,” the letter said. “Students should be confident that when they sit down to take an exam that the only thing they need to think about is how best to demonstrate what they know.”

Initially, Tennessee was supposed to use funds under the state’s federal Race to the Top award to roll out the PARCC test, which is also an online test aligned with Common Core, during the 2014-15 school year. However, wary of federal intrusion in state testing policies, the legislature instead voted to stick with the TCAP test for 2015-2016 and open up bids for a new testing vendor. That led the state to award a $108 million contract to Measurement Inc., which offered the lowest bid.

Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report. 

Are Children Learning

Chicago schools to delay plan for tackling the gifted gap

PHOTO: Frederick Bass

Chicago Public Schools wants to delay for a year a plan to make gifted services available to more children outside of selected enrollment, or test-in, schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Board of Education is holding a hearing on a request for a one-year extension to comply with a new Illinois law that compels school districts to better accommodate gifted children. The public can sign in to comment beginning at 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:30 a.m. meeting.

The law requires Illinois districts to identify students who are gifted using “multiple, reliable and valid indicators” and put programs in place to challenge them. That could include offering the chance to start kindergarten and first grade early, accelerating a child in a single subject, or having the child skip a whole grade.

But those steps are a big undertaking, one that Chicago wants to delay for a year. Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the district is seeking the extension to “allow us more time to thoughtfully develop and execute” a plan to comply with the scope of the new law.

The law, which went into effect July 1, also stresses that district approaches should be “fair and equitable”—and in Illinois, gifted services have been anything but. In the early 2000s, the state was considered a leader in gifted education. But by 2017, only 33 percent of high-poverty schools statewide offered gifted programs, lower than the national average of 69 percent.

Carolyn Welch, policy and advocacy committee co-chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says the new law is a “critical step” — especially for low-income students, who tend to be underrepresented in gifted programs if their schools offer them at all. In high-poverty public school districts like Chicago, many families don’t have the resources to pay for classes or enrichment activities outside of school. So students depend on public schools to meet their needs.

Prior to the new law, which is called the Accelerated Placement Act, about 55 percent of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46 percent lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

In Chicago, students can test in to competitive academic centers, classical schools, and other gifted programs, but outside of those, program offerings are ad-hoc. Like at a lot of big urban districts, what’s available at individual schools can vary quite a bit throughout Chicago schools, said Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. And there are more children in Chicago than the centers can serve, with three applicants vying for every seat, he said.

Elementary gifted programs also don’t accommodate students who might be gifted at one subject but average at another. And when you look at who attends those programs, they tend to be on the higher end of the socio-economic scale and disproportionately white. Some of that, Calvert added, “is a product of the fact that resources make a difference in achievement.”

Calvert said it’s important to have ways to identify and accommodate gifted students at neighborhood schools because it’s a way that, without new resources or special programs, “schools can provide something to students who need it.”

“If you’re a second grader ready for third grade content that has an option the school can provide, that doesn’t cost any more than serving that student as a second grader.”

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. Hispanic students, meanwhile, were particularly underrepresented, comprising 46 percent of total CPS students, but only 25 percent of seats in elementary gifted programs.

Low-income students, more than 82 percent of the district, only comprised 60 percent of gifted seats, according to the report.

The risk of an approach like Chicago’s, which leans on a small number of gifted and classical programs, is that a lot of kids slip through the cracks “and lose their potential,” Calvert said. Then high-ability students who are chronically underchallenged and see school as a waste of time are more likely to underachieve and even drop out.  

Students who are supported in elementary school are more likely to track into advanced coursework in high school, which increases their chances of graduating from college, enjoying more social mobility, and having children who graduate college as well, Calvert said. He pointed out that the largest ethnic group at CPS is Latino students, but that a disproportionately low number of those students are at advanced high schools, and that they matriculate into college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

About 65 percent of students at CPS are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools, but the population in those schools don’t reflect the school districts’ racial mix, according to a draft of the school district’s Annual Regional Analysis. Only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

listening tour

Haslam will hit the road to troubleshoot Tennessee’s testing problems

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Flanked by 37 educators serving as Tennessee's new "TNReady ambassadors," Gov. Bill Haslam announces the kickoff of a statewide "listening tour" aimed at improving administration of the state's standardized assessment.

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he won’t pause state testing this school year and instead will launch a statewide “listening tour” aimed at fixing problems that have hampered Tennessee’s TNReady assessment in its first three years.

Responding to calls for a break in testing from school superintendents in Memphis and Nashville and from 18 state legislators, the Republican governor said he’s committed to getting TNReady right before he leaves office in January.

“Throwing in the towel on the policies instrumental to our progress should not be an option,” Haslam said during a news conference at the state Capitol.

Critics quickly countered that the listening tour is really just a road show with a predetermined outcome.

“We are in the middle of election season and the governor is in his final days. What more can he add to the education debate after eight years, that he hasn’t already tried?” wrote JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, in a column following the announcement.

Haslam acknowledged “significant problems” with TNReady, which this spring was marred by technical disruptions during a second attempt in three years at statewide computerized testing. But he added that now is not the time to point fingers.

“Without aligned assessments, we don’t know where our students stand and where we need to improve,” he said.

Declaring that they have “no confidence” in the test, Dorsey Hopson and Shawn Joseph — leaders of Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, respectively — called earlier this month for a testing moratorium to let the next governor address the problems.

Now Haslam, who is term-limited after eight years in office, is trying to keep intact the linchpin of Tennessee’s blueprint for student improvement, which began under the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in the Race to the Top era. Haslam has stood by that sweeping overhaul — including a state test designed to measure how students are learning Tennessee’s new academic standards and to hold teachers accountable for the results. He believes passionately that the policies have led to Tennessee’s gains on national tests since 2011.

"I am committed to doing everything I can as governor before I leave to getting this right. "Gov. Bill Haslam

The listening tour will launch Friday in Knoxville, and will bring together teachers, testing and technology coordinators, and school administrators. Other stops are planned in Hamilton, Shelby, Williamson, Greene, and Gibson counties.

Haslam and his education chief, Candice McQueen, will attend the meetings, which will be facilitated by Wayne Miller, a long-time educator and retired director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

The governor also named a three-member advisory team to help guide the feedback sessions and develop recommendations for him and his successor. Those advisers are Cicely Woodard of Franklin, the state’s current teacher of the year; Hamblen County teacher Derek Voiles, named the state’s top teacher in 2017; and Mike Winstead; director of Maryville City Schools and this year’s superintendent of the year.

The state already has conducted multiple surveys with educators about this year’s testing experience and recently named 37 teachers and test coordinators to serve as “TNReady ambassadors,” advising the state Education Department and its testing companies. McQueen also meets frequently with an educator-laden task force to confer about testing matters.

In addition, Tennessee is developing its request for proposals for one or more testing companies to take the reins from Questar, the state’s current vendor. That request is scheduled to go out late this year for testing administration that would begin in the fall of 2019.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include reaction from a teachers association.