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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.

Data dive

Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing schools. But because too few of its students took the state exams — and those who did weren’t enrolled long enough — there is no clear picture of how well the school is educating them.

The virtual charter school, which opened in 2017, more than doubled in size to 6,232 students since last fall, in part because state data shows more than 1,700 students transferred from its troubled sister school, Indiana Virtual School.

But despite Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s rapid growth, the school is bypassing a key accountability measure that Indiana thinks is important for transparency: A-F grades, which were approved by the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Education department officials said the school did not get a grade, despite its high enrollment last year, because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough to have one calculated. State grades are based primarily on student test scores, and virtual schools are known to struggle to get their remote students to sit for exams.

State test participation rate data shows IVPA tested about 19 percent of its 346 10th-graders in 2018 — about 65 students. To use test scores to calculate a school grade, the state requires that at least 40 test-takers must have attended the school for at least 162 days, a majority of the school year. But state officials said that while the school enrolled 48 10th-graders who met the attendance threshold during the testing period, only three of those students took the exams.

Federal requirements say schools must test at least 95 percent of students, and school grades can be affected if a school falls below that percentage. But there is currently no consequence for a school that doesn’t test enough students to get a letter grade.

The students who were tested at IVPA posted poor results: 5.7 percent passed both state English and math exams.

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School and IVPA did not respond to requests for comment on A-F grades or testing participation, but the schools’ superintendent Percy Clark said in an emailed statement that students from varying education backgrounds select IVPA, and that the school was designed to serve students who are far behind their peers academically.

“Our students CHOOSE to come to Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy from many different backgrounds, and we accept everyone regardless of where they are on their academic journey,” Clark said.

Virtual charter school critics say IVPA’s lack of a letter grade is an example of how the schools are able to avoid scrutiny.

“It’s absolutely indefensible,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an organization that advocates for charter schools but has been a vocal critic of virtual charter schools. “When it comes to charter schools, the grand bargain is that the charter school gets increased autonomy, and in exchange, there is greater accountability. It’s hard to see where the accountability is for virtual schools right now.”

In contrast to IVPA, other large virtual schools in the state tested at least 90 percent of their students, and nearly every traditional school in Indiana met the federal threshold for testing students.

Indiana Virtual School, the subject of a Chalkbeat investigation that revealed questionable educational and spending practices, tested about two-thirds of its students in 2018. Students at the school, which received its third F grade from the state this week, did marginally better than at IVPA, but performed far below state averages: 18.6 percent of elementary and middle school students passed both tests, and 4.4 percent of high-schoolers did. State law says schools are up for state board of education intervention when they reach four consecutive F grades.

Brown, who used to work in the Indianapolis mayor’s office overseeing charter schools, said this is where charter school authorizers — the entities charged with monitoring the schools’ operations, finances, and academics — need to be involved. Daleville Public Schools, a small rural district near Muncie, oversees IVS and IVPA. State education leaders have previously questioned whether school districts have the capacity and expertise to oversee statewide charter schools. District leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“If I was still an authorizer and one of our schools had less than a 20 percent rate of their students taking the ISTEP, we would be mortified, and we would be holding that school accountable with very clear measures,” Brown said. “In light of the tens of millions of dollars used to fund this school, there has to be at least a basic level of accountability, and right now, it’s hard to account for how that money is being spent because we just don’t know.”

With such high enrollment numbers, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy could together bring in upward of $35 million from the state for this school year, according to funding estimates from the Legislative Services Agency.

At the state’s other full-time virtual charter schools — including those billed as alternative schools like IVPA — state grades are rising as enrollment grows. Indiana Connections Academy is up to a D this year from an F, and Insight School of Indiana is up to a C from an F. For grades under Indiana’s federal plan, the schools received an F and D, respectively.

Indiana Connections Career Academy enrolled about 70 students last year and received no grade, but education department officials say that is because it had too few students to calculate one, despite testing more than 95 percent of them. It’s not uncommon for small schools — especially high schools that have just one tested grade — to not get a grade. This year, the school’s enrollment is up to about 300 students.

Virtual charter school accountability has become a hot issue in Indiana. Earlier this year, the state board of education convened a committee to study virtual charter schools, which have grown rapidly here in recent years. And last month, the committee released a series of recommendations, including slowing growth of new virtual charter schools to 15 percent per year — after a school hits 250 students — for their first four years.

Getting students who are located remotely to sit for state exams is a challenge for virtual schools. Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, said dogged work contacting and keeping up with students has made some of the difference for her school, both in students taking tests and improving on them.

“Our teachers are relentless in trying to engage with kids,” she said. “We are by no means where we want to be. We still have a lot of work to do. But 8-point growth is something that we’re celebrating today.”

Melissa Brown said the school is also offering students who come in behind grade level more ways to make up their classes and incentives for them to stay at the school. For example, she said the school has a lot of over-age eighth-graders who should be in high school. Instead of just drilling their eighth-grade classes, they also have a chance to try out high school-level work — a taste of what’s to come, Brown said. So far, it’s working.

“We’re just trying to be really creative about helping kids progress,” she said.

At Insight, school director Elizabeth Lamey said she’s excited by how the high school has been able to help students show more growth on state tests. Currently, the school, which opened in 2016, is getting grades calculated only on how much students improve on state tests from one year to the next, not their proficiency or other measures such as graduation rate.

Lamey said improving the school’s curriculum and focusing on remediation and teacher training contributed to their progress and sets them up to continue that work.

“We hope to see even more growth this year,” Lamey said. “We know that it’s a rougher road, the older students get, to remediate. It takes more time, and we are slow and steady — we keep moving forward.”

Accountability issues will continue to be important for virtual charter schools as their enrollments grow.

Indiana’s five full-time virtual charter schools enroll about 13,000 students. Although it appears that total virtual charter school enrollment in Indiana has declined since 2017-18, those figures include the closing of low-performing Hoosier Virtual Academy. The school enrolled 1,170 students when it closed in June, which was far lower than the 3,342 it was recorded as having at the beginning of that school year.

Comparing enrollment totals between fall of 2017 and fall of 2018, every virtual charter school currently open in the state saw enrollment rise, with the exception of Indiana Virtual School. Indiana Connections Academy and its sister school, Indiana Connections Career Academy, gained nearly 400 students between them. Insight is also up 45 students.

Virtual charter schools tend to have volatile enrollment patterns in part because of how easily students can enroll and withdraw — their families don’t have to move, and they can live anywhere in the state. Students moving between schools is not unique to virtual schools, but those schools do tend to see higher instances of mobility than traditional schools.

That means it can be hard to determine just how much virtual school enrollment has changed from one year to the next — enrollment numbers reported in the fall might fluctuate wildly through the rest of year.

Are Children Learning

These are the 7 schools IPS leaders are most worried about

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 48 is one of the campuses identified for a quality review.

Seven schools will be getting a closer look, and possible intervention, after Indianapolis Public Schools administration identified them as some of the lowest-performing schools in the district.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration announced this week the schools that were chosen for school quality reviews based on performance on the state ISTEP exam. This is the second year the district has initiated its own assessment of struggling schools, which will include district visits to the schools, and interviews with leaders, staff, and families.

The reviews are designed to help schools improve, district officials said. But campuses could also face the possibility of being restarted as innovation schools. If that happens, they would likely be taken over by outside charter or nonprofit operators, who would overhaul the schools with largely new staff. Schools can also be selected for restart based on repeated failing grades from the state.

One of the seven schools identified by the district last year was ultimately restarted as an innovation school. The other schools received different kinds of help such as working with schools to help teachers collaborate better, officials said.

“This is a clear example of our commitment to helping drive improvement at these schools where we see there’s a lack of improvement,” Ferebee said.

One sign that less drastic efforts helped is that only one campus, School 48, appeared on the list for the second year in a row.

“As a matter of fact, a few of the schools from last year had some of the highest growth that we saw in the district,” said Andrew Strope, the district’s performance and continuous improvement officer.

One wrinkle for the district is that three of the seven schools identified are already innovation schools. That raised concerns for board member Venita Moore.

“I was surprised to see these … innovation schools on the list,” Moore said. “But I think it does provide our community insight that we take seriously the quality of the education that our children are receiving.”

When innovation schools are created, the operators have contracts with Indianapolis Public Schools. Those agreements typically stipulate that the contracts can be ended if the schools receive D or F grades from the state for three or more consecutive years.

Ferebee cautioned, however, that restarting them again would create more upheaval. “Often times that creates instability that is not always helpful,” he said. “The goal, I just want to continue to reiterate, is to ensure we can help these schools improve their performance.”

These are the seven schools identified as having test scores in the bottom quarter and growth scores in the bottom half for the district.

  • Stephen Foster School 67
  • Eleanor Skillen School 34
  • Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School 15
  • Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder Diggs 42
  • Kindezi Academy at Joyce Kilmer 69
  • James Russell Lowell School 51
  • Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48