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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.

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 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.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.