Switch glitch

Tennessee’s switch to online testing starts rough as platform crashes on Day One

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Computers line a classroom at Aspire Hanley Elementary in Memphis as schools prepared to make the switch to online assessments for state achievement tests.

On the first day of online testing in Tennessee schools, a network outage forced students to stop taking the state’s new achievement test, causing a delay in the much-anticipated rollout of the TNReady exam.

Major outages occurred statewide at 8:25 a.m. CST on the MIST platform developed by Measurement Inc., the North Carolina-based company that created the test, according to an email to superintendents from state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“These outages were caused because the network utilized by Measurement Inc. experienced a failure,” McQueen wrote. “We are urgently working with Measurement Inc. to identify the causes and correct the problem. At this time, we are advising that schools experiencing problems with the test discontinue testing, and return to their normal classes. Please do not begin any new additional testing you had planned for today until the department provides further information.

Due to a lengthy testing window that began on Monday and continues through March 4, it’s unclear how many schools were impacted statewide.

However, in Nashville, 30 schools were administering the test on Monday and six reported glitches, according to Joe Bass, a spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Students who had not yet encountered technological difficulties were told to finish the assessment.

District leaders stressed to teachers and parents that the outages were not due to local technology problems. McQueen told superintendents that Measurement Inc. was aware of the problem.

Technology troubles have plagued several states in recent years in the transition to online testing, causing mistrust over the validity of scores and testing platforms.

As word spread about Monday’s outages, critics of the new test — and the inclusion of data from the tests in teacher evaluations — quickly cited the technology glitches as an indictment of the State Department of Education.

#TNReady crashes statewide … is TDOE still perplexed why boards across the state are asking for grace for teachers and kids from scores?” Knox County school board member Amber Rountree tweeted upon learning the news.

Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray quickly blasted the state Education Department’s handling of the transition, citing concerns about the state’s capacity to accommodate so many students on the server at one time, as well as concerns about local districts having enough resources to complete the testing.

“It is unacceptable to have this kind of statewide failure when the state has tied so many high-stakes decisions to the results of this assessment,” Gray said. “Our students and teachers have enough stress and anxiety around these assessments without adding additional worries about technical issues.

Gray called on the state to grant at least a one-year waiver from including TNReady scores in teacher evaluations, although state officials have said that districts have discretion whether they choose to use that data this year on personnel decisions.

Last week, Department of Education officials told reporters they were prepared for widespread technology difficulties.

Chief Information Officer Cliff Lloyd said that he wasn’t as concerned about major failures such as servers crashing. “Those big things are easy to fix,” he said at the time. “I’m worried about small things that can occur on certain operating systems in certain conditions.”

As part of the state’s contingency plans, districts can request paper-based tests if technical problems persist and also can administer TNReady later than the state-assigned testing window.

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version.

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.