Speaking Out

Testmaker: What went wrong with TNReady

The head of the company that created TNReady accepts blame for this year’s botched rollout of Tennessee’s new standardized online assessment, but says the subsequent delays in delivering printed testing materials were unavoidable.

Measurement Inc. president and founder Henry Scherich says Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s decision to scrap the online assessment on the first day of testing in February set in motion a chain of logistical quagmires that were impossible to overcome.

Once McQueen ordered districts to switch back to paper tests, his company found the sudden task of printing and delivering up to 5 million documents this spring overwhelming, if not impossible.

Henry Scherich
Henry Scherich

“I understand the frustration of superintendents and the state department,” Scherich said. “Having said all of that, this was a huge job that we took on and there’s been no testing company in the country — in the world, probably — who has taken on the task of printing and shipping this many tests in this short a period of time, and we really struggled with it.”

Last week, the Tennessee Department of Education informed district leaders that many of the testing materials wouldn’t arrive in time for the opening of this week’s final TNReady testing window — the latest in a series of delivery delays that has wreaked havoc in districts and classrooms across the state. State leaders placed the blame squarely on Measurement Inc.

In an interview this week with Chalkbeat, Scherich acknowledged that developing and delivering TNReady in a new online platform was the biggest job that his 36-year-old Durham, N.C.-based company has ever undertaken — perhaps too big given the one-year deadline.

He offered a behind-the-scenes look at the snafus and challenges. At the same time, he insisted that TNReady is a strong test and — once its delivery platform is fixed — the assessment can can help Tennessee reach its accountability goals.

Measurement Inc. won the bid to create Tennessee’s test for grades 3-11 math and English language arts in October of 2014, only months after a vote by the Tennessee legislature prompted the Department of Education to pull out of PARCC, a consortium of other states with a shared Common Core-aligned assessment. The company would have a year to develop a test for Tennessee. A small number of high school students on block schedules would take the test in the fall of 2015, with the bulk of students in grades 3-11 taking it the following spring.

TNReady marked an unprecedented shift for Tennessee and, like PARCC, was supposed to be online and aligned with the current Common Core State Standards.

"It was a failure in some respects because we were supposed to design a system that would take 100,000 students in at one time."Henry Scherich

It was also an unprecedented task for Measurement Inc., which had never before developed and delivered a state’s entire online testing program.

But on Feb. 8, the very first day of statewide online testing, the test buckled as more and more students logged on. Even so, leaders of Measurement Inc. were surprised when McQueen quickly pulled the plug on the online assessment, and announced that the state would switch to paper-and-pencil versions.

Here’s what happened, according to Scherich:

Online ‘crash’

Scherich says that, first of all, the system never “crashed” on the first day. Students’ screens never went blank. Instead, he calls what happened “infrastructure saturation.” As more and more students logged on, their cursors began to spin, signaling that the test was taking longer to load than it should have.

What was the problem? Ultimately, Scherich says, there weren’t enough servers for the volume of students online, causing the system to clog up as more and more students logged in. He declined to speculate on how long it would have taken to fix the problem and add more primary servers, but said that it would have been possible to get back on track.

“We could have duplicated the system,” he said. “We would have said to half of the state, you work on these 64 servers and the other half work on another set.”

About 48,000 students logged on that day, and about 18,000 submitted assessments. It’s unknown the number of students who weren’t having troubles with the test, but stopped after McQueen sent an email instructing districts to halt testing.

“It was a failure in some respects because we were supposed to design a system that would take 100,000 students in at one time… We had a problem with 48,000,” Scherich said.

Printing delays

Scherich says the subsequent delays come down to this: There were a lot of tests to be printed, and not a lot of printers available on short notice. Overall, the switch to printing meant Measurement Inc. had to scramble to print answer sheets and test booklets for grades 3-11 amounting to 5 million documents — when only weeks before, they hadn’t planned on printing any.

"There’s been no testing company in the country — in the world, probably — who has taken on the task of printing and shipping this many tests in this short a period of time ..."

Measurement Inc. worked with the Department of Education to transfer different versions of the tests from computer to paper. Each test had several versions with different field test items embedded within.

“You can’t just push the button on the computer and have the test be printed out,” he said. “The formatting is all different.”

In the meantime, Measurement Inc. sought out printers who were able to fulfill the large order quickly. Through 36 years in testing, the company had a lot of connections, but only three printing plant operators said they were up to the task. Eventually, two backed out, leaving Measurement Inc. with one: RR Donnelley based in Chicago.

“It’s a large printing company, and they had plants all over the U.S. They printed one or more of the tests or the answer documents in 11 different printing plants around the country,” he said. “So we were getting tests from Minnesota, Missouri. They ran a lot of night shifts to do that for us.”

Once the tests and answer sheets arrived at Measurement Inc., they had to be sorted and distributed to schools. That’s 5 million tests, spread across nearly 1,000 schools.

The last documents arrived from the printer last Saturday, and Measurement Inc. is rushing to get them out in the next two to three days, Scherich said.

Tight timeline

Measurement Inc. had about a year to develop the test and roll out an online system for the entire state. In comparison, PARCC, the online assessment that Tennessee originally was slated to use, was developed in about five years.

Though Measurement Inc. had been working on its online platform for six years and used it previously in other states, including Tennessee for its writing test, the company had never before undertaken a state’s entire testing program.

Measurement Inc. not only developed the TNReady tests for math and English language arts, but also put the content for science and social studies on its online platform, known as MIST.

He said a lot was done right in developing TNReady, including the recruitment of 400 Tennessee teachers to help write test questions designed to measure critical thinking skills.

“I think that our staff and the state of Tennessee staff did an excellent job in building an assessment,” he said. “The math test is a good test. (English language arts) is a good test. Tennessee has a good catalog, a good library of test items for the future.”

Testing

Memphis school board softens request to reform state’s troubled TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Shelby County Schools board plans to present its annual wish list to Memphis-area state legislators on Dec. 17.

The board governing Tennessee’s largest school district is asking state legislators to rely less on the standardized test known as TNReady, which has endured a tumultuous online rollout since 2016.

The school board’s annual wish list for state lawmakers dampens stronger language the Shelby County Schools board had proposed last week to “eliminate” the state’s “use and reliance” on the test.

Instead, the Memphis board wants state lawmakers to require the Tennessee Department of Education “to use multiple and/or alternative methods of accountability beyond TNReady that more accurately and reliably assess” student knowledge of state academic standards.

“Much of the trouble with state testing “was around the implementation, not necessarily the tool itself,” said board member Kevin Woods. Board members are scheduled to make their annual presentation to Memphis area lawmakers later this month.

TNReady is the state’s high stakes test that measures student academic performance, starting with third-graders. High schoolers take the online version. In the past, TNReady results have determined teacher raises and evaluations, employment, or whether to place low-performing schools in the state-run Achievement School District. But last year lawmakers temporarily barred using TNReady results for making those decisions after technical glitches interrupted testing for thousands of students.

Leaders in the state’s education department have said that despite the repeated technical difficulties, the test itself is still reliable and a good measure of student progress. In recent years, the state has overhauled requirements for student learning to make them more rigorous. Raising the bar is something the state and Shelby County Schools’ leader Dorsey Hopson agree on — even though Hopson said he had “no confidence” in the online testing system.


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


Testing students is essential for measuring student progress, said Deidra Brooks, the chief of staff for Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization. She urged the board to specify an alternative “that would provide parents with an equitable and transparent way for parents to see how their students are doing.”

The board’s legislative agenda noted a previous bill that failed last year would have allowed districts to use the college admissions test ACT instead of TNReady for high school students. The bill also would have limited the time and number of tests students take during the school year.

Also included in the school board’s legislative agenda was the Memphis school board’s desire to have significantly more say in how charter schools are authorized and overseen.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol stands in downtown Nashville.

For example, the board said it should be able to decide which neighborhoods are “oversaturated” with schools and prevent a charter school from opening there. Many charter and traditional schools have struggled to enroll enough students as the population has fallen and more schools have opened.

The board is also looking for ways to streamline the authorizing process. It wants to cap the number of charter schools a district can authorize each year, and get rid of a provision that allows prospective charter operators to amend their application during the approval process.

Once schools are authorized, board members want the ability to “take interim measures, short of full revocation” when a charter school is not following legal guidelines or meeting academic standards during its 10-year-charter duration.

The board also continues to oppose a state voucher system that would give public money to parents to use for private school tuition. Governor-elect Bill Lee has expressed support for vouchers, which have failed in the state legislature for about a decade. Lee’s commitment to promote the initiative was underlined by hiring Tony Niknejad as his policy director, who was the former Tennessee leader of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

Below is the full legislative agenda board members will share with state lawmakers who represent the Memphis area Monday, Dec. 17. The school board’s presentation is scheduled for 1:35 p.m. at the Pink Palace Museum, 3050 Central Ave.

shift

With new school turnaround model, Tennessee takes lessons learned in Memphis to Chattanooga

PHOTO: Hamilton County Department of Education
A teacher works with students at a Chattanooga elementary school.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee has launched a third model for improving struggling schools — based in part on lessons that have emerged from the state’s first two efforts over the past decade.

The new Partnership Network, now in its first year under a five-year agreement between the state and Hamilton County Schools, is focused on five schools in Chattanooga where student achievement has languished for decades.

The collaborative model takes a page from learnings garnered mostly in Memphis. The city is the hub of the state’s two other turnaround models, one of which involves wresting control of low-performing schools from the local district.

“I would describe this model not as a state takeover, but a state pushing” toward a different style of intervention, said state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen of the Partnership Network.

All three turnaround options are outlined in Tennessee’s plan under the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law requires each state to come up with a strategy for improving chronically underperforming schools.

Most promising so far has been Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a district-led program that provides struggling Memphis schools with extra state-funded resources and charter-like autonomy.

The other approach, the state-run Achievement School District, has been lackluster in performance and heavy-handed in its execution, but state officials are hopeful it’s a late bloomer, especially under the new leadership of the iZone’s former chief. Known as the ASD, the district has taken control of dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and matched them with charter operators.

State officials once had considered the cluster of Chattanooga schools for ASD takeover. But they came up with the partnership approach as a third way, wherein a seven-member advisory board named by both partners oversees the work of the mini-school district comprising 2,300 students.


One Chattanooga school was once a heralded example of successful turnaround. What happened?


The partnership model, while unique in its structure, will only be as good as its outcomes, McQueen emphasized Monday during the advisory board’s second meeting.

Since embracing school improvement as part of a 2010 overhaul of K-12 public education, Tennessee has committed to a series of independent studies to track results with an eye toward data-driven refinements and new strategies. The research is the basis for a policy brief released this week outlining the state’s guiding principles for effective school turnaround. The Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a collaboration between Vanderbilt University and the state education department, developed the guidelines.

There is no magic bullet, said Gary T. Henry, the lead researcher behind the brief and a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt.

He said the work of fixing struggling schools is “the most challenging work in public education today.” That’s because it really does take a village, he said, that includes the local school district, the state, federal dollars, and a sustained commitment from all parties to attack the problems from multiple angles.

Vanderbilt researcher Gary T. Henry and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin talk about school turnaround work with leaders of Hamilton County’s new Partnership Network.

In addition, there must be a willingness to treat low-performing schools as special cases that merit additional resources and higher pay for effective teachers and administrators — something that school districts are loathe to do and that defies political gravity, Henry said.

It also means building a district-within-a-district organizational structure dedicated to school improvement; removing barriers to improvement such as high teacher and leader turnover rates; increasing capacity for effective teaching and leadership with supports such as curriculum, training, and mentoring; and establishing school practices and processes — like opportunities for teacher collaboration — that promote continuity and stability.

“Doing one or two of these will not necessarily change the lives of students and teachers and principals. But doing all five intelligently and in focused fashion can,” Henry said.

The work must recognize, too, the profound impact of poverty on the students who generally attend low-performing schools, said Sharon Griffin, the former iZone chief hired last spring to run the state-run ASD.

“Sometimes just showing up (to school) is a miracle,” Griffin said of kids who bring adverse and chronically stressful experiences into schools and classrooms.

A nationally recognized turnaround leader, Griffin told the new Chattanooga advisory board about the improvement work she has “lived and breathed” as a Memphis teacher, principal, and iZone superintendent. She urged them to get inside of schools, stay student-focused in their oversight of the Partnership Network, and plan for a marathon instead of a sprint.

“The work can’t stop. The sense of urgency cannot stop,” she said.