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Questar wins contract to develop Tennessee test to replace failed TNReady

After a rocky year of standardized testing, Tennessee is starting fresh with Questar, a large-scale test maker that will begin administering the state’s assessments for grades 3-11 in the upcoming school year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday that the state plans to award a two-year contract to the Minneapolis-based company, with an option to extend the contract for up to five years, at a cost of about $30 million annually.

The state also is not racing back into online testing. Having seen its testing program grind to a halt this year due to a sweeping failed rollout of its TNReady assessment, Tennessee will phase in online testing over a three-year period, McQueen said.

For the upcoming school year, the state will administer paper-and-pencil tests for grades 3-8. For high school end-of-course exams, the department will work with Questar to provide an online option “if both schools and testing platform demonstrate early proof of successful online administration,” according to a news release. Districts also will have the option to choose paper-based assessments for high school students.

“Students, teachers and parents deserve a better testing experience in Tennessee, and we believe today’s announcement is another step in the right direction,” McQueen said in the release.

The choice of Questar gives the Minneapolis company only months to work with before the first testing happens in Tennessee. No time can be wasted: some high school students will need an assessment by as soon as November, and the federal government requires annual testing.

McQueen said Questar has a track record for working on a short timeline. With only a few snafus, the company successfully administered New York’s assessments for grades 3-8 to about 1.3 million students after winning the contract last summer. It also developed the Mississippi annual assessment on a timeline similar to Tennessee’s in 2015.

“Questar has recent experience developing a large-scale test thoughtfully and urgently,” McQueen said. “We believe it is the right partner to collaborate with … to develop assessments that are meaningful and measure what our students truly know and understand.”

In addition, Questar will have a foundation on which to work. A State Department of Education team began crafting next year’s assessment earlier this spring after McQueen fired Measurement Inc., a small North Carolina-based company that state officials blamed for the botched rollout of its TNReady assessment for math and English, as well as its science and social studies TCAPs.


For a clearer picture of what went wrong with TNReady, check out a Chalkbeat analysis of emails that reveal months of missteps leading up to the failed online testing debut.


The choice of Questar was not surprising. The department wanted a vendor who has had success developing statewide online assessments. Few vendors have done that; even fewer have done so successfully. Measurement Inc. had more than 40 years of experience but had never rolled out a statewide assessment program on the scale requested by Tennessee.

Questar will be charged with developing assessments for grades 3-8 in math, English, science and social studies, with an eye on transitioning the state assessments online.

Candice McQueen
PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

During an afternoon conference call with reporters, McQueen said the decision to walk back into online testing instead of running has nothing to do with Questar but more to do with Tennesseans’ comfort level with computerized testing in the wake of TNReady’s online failure. The state will begin the shift with its older students, who have more digital experience.

Initial reaction to this week’s announcement focused on the state’s new timeline for online testing.

“It is encouraging to learn that the department has listened to feedback from educators and district leaders and will be phasing in the transition to online testing more slowly and deliberately,” said a statement from the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

State officials said they expect to finalize its contract with Questar next week. Earlier this spring, the department hired Questar as the state’s vendor for an optional second-grade assessment.

The State Department of Education used an emergency procurement process to select Questar for its biggest contract, working on an expedited timeline to find a qualified company in time to develop next year’s test. Before deciding, state education officials had conversations with multiple vendors, including Educational Testing Services, Data Recognition Corp., Measured Progress, Pearson, ACT and Houghton Mifflin.

State officials emphasized that they did their homework, having “engaged with the vendor’s references as well as independently reaching out to the other states that have contracted with Questar,” according to the release. “Independently verifying the vendor’s work was a priority throughout the vetting process.”

The relationship with Measurement Inc., which was selected before McQueen came on board, was mostly troubled. McQueen waited to pull the plug on the contract, though, in deference to students and teachers, she told Chalkbeat last week.

The Tennessee Office of General Services selected Measurement Inc. out of five interested vendors in 2014, awarding the company a $108 million contract. Prior to 2014, Tennessee contracted with Pearson for most of its end-of-year tests. The state created an emergency contract with Pearson, worth about $18.5 million, a month after firing Measurement Inc.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

The timeline below tracks the twists and turns of Tennessee’s testing journey.

*Chalkbeat reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.