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.”

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.