the long view

Why this year’s failed TNReady test leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Tennessee’s decision to cancel standardized testing this year amid sweeping snafus sent shockwaves across the state’s education system this spring.

But the long-term consequences could be more significant — and wide-reaching.

As the state finalizes a contract with a new testing company to replace the one it fired this spring, Tennessee’s biggest challenge now might be to regain the trust of educators, students and parents. Its new measuring stick for math and English, called TNReady, had been positioned as the centerpiece of a policy agenda that would make Tennessee a leader in student achievement after decades of lagging.

“As an educator, I’ve lost confidence in the ability of Tennessee to successfully execute a test on the state level,” said seventh-grade social studies teacher Mitch Orr, who works at STEM Prep Academy in Nashville.

Outside of the state, observers who once saw promise in Tennessee’s ambitious education agenda now see a trail of red flags along the road to improve student achievement.

“The shine is off the apple when it comes to Tennessee education reform,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute and a proponent of much of the state’s education improvement agenda. “A lot of us watching this from afar are nervous for Tennessee.”

State education officials acknowledge the doubt from onlookers, even as they insist that Tennessee’s vaunted accountability system can recover from the setbacks.

“We’re having to certainly build that trust back, not only with educators but with the general public,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

"The shine is off the apple when it comes to Tennessee education reform."Michael Petrilli, Thomas Fordham Institute

One major challenge is that the absence of test scores complicates the federal requirement for the state to explain how different groups of students are doing. That requirement, in place since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, is one of the holdovers in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which passed last fall.

“It’s a problem,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King said in May when asked how Tennessee’s test cancellation could impact the tracking of achievement gaps and education equities, a key purpose of its accountability system. He said the state would have to dig into its data to find other ways to assess whether all students are improving, or just some groups of them.

Tennessee State Board of Education members have flagged this year’s lack of data as a serious problem — albeit one for which they don’t know the solution. “That data tells us something very important and real,” says Sara Heyburn, the board’s executive director. “It helps us understand where our achievement gaps are. … Equity really rests on having that data.”

Test scores are also at the heart of the state’s school turnaround efforts. The state-run Achievement School District uses them to decide which schools to shutter and reopen as charter schools, and urban districts use them to decide which schools should receive extra resources as part of their “innovation zones.” These school improvement efforts have been closely watched, and in some cases, replicated in other states.

In April, the Achievement School District announced it will not take over more schools in 2017-18 because of the testing travails. And since decisions about state intervention are based on three years of data, it’s unclear how such decisions will be made in 2018 and 2019, either.

“The [testing] issues compromised the quality of that data,” said Tim Fields, a national expert on school turnaround work with the think tank Public Impact. “That’s a challenge in many respects.”

"We’re having to certainly build that trust back, not only with educators but with the general public."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

Then in May, the State Board of Education eliminated the accountability provisions it had just passed last year. That’s because this year’s test scores will not be available to evaluate a large swath of teachers or measure achievement gaps at most elementary and middle schools.

Instead, the state is asking districts to fulfill its mandate to evaluate teachers using student performance by counting last year’s test score growth scores for more, and by selecting an available option for student performance from a preset menu.

In the absence of school-wide test scores, many elementary and middle school teachers are being rated based in part on their district’s high school data, such as graduation rates — an important metric but one that does not try to isolate their impact.

“While we do affect graduation rates as an elementary school, I definitely think our test scores give a truer picture,” said Dana Lester, an elementary school librarian in Rutherford County, who like many of her colleagues opted to use graduation rates in her evaluation. “But we really didn’t have a choice.”

Department officials, while disappointed and apologetic about the testing problems, insist that the state’s accountability system is flexible enough to absorb this year’s setbacks.

“It is not being upended,” McQueen said. “We have so many things that can still provide us information.” She cited a range of items that the state measures, including high school test scores and absenteeism rates, as possible metrics for assessing schools this year.

“[The data] will just look different than what we’ve been able to provide for the last few years,” she said.

Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray says that, for educators, the question now is how and if the state will reevaluate the role of standardized tests as a result of this year’s setbacks. That answer might come soon as the state begins conversations about complying with the new federal education law ESSA, which requires an array of data besides test scores to be used for accountability purposes. Last year, the state added more measures beyond testing to its district accountability system, signaling a slight shift in the importance of testing. Petrilli, of the Fordham Institute, predicts that states will move away from using test scores to evaluate teachers.

"There is a phenomenal opportunity ... to take this, go back to the beginning, and emerge as a leader in education."Mitch Orr, Nashville teacher

While frustrated as a teacher, Mitch Orr views Tennessee’s shakeup in accountability as a chance to make improvements.

“There is a phenomenal opportunity that the state has to take this, go back to the beginning, and emerge as a leader in education,” he said.

In the meantime, Tennessee still has a system based entirely on end-of-year test data that won’t work until a test is entirely rolled out.

“People know when you’re shifting assessments, you’re going to have to wait a year to see growth — so now to put that off more, it’s just another year until you have that information at scale,” said Sonja Santelises, outgoing vice president at the Washington-based think tank Education Trust and incoming superintendent of Baltimore City Schools, who has worked closely with Tennessee educators.

“It means one more year of just kind of paddling. You lose momentum.”

Are Children Learning

More Memphis area students are graduating high school. But what does that mean?

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The 2018 spring graduation for the Memphis Virtual School was held May 22 in the Hamilton High School auditorium.

The number of students graduating from high schools in Shelby County and across the state has been rising for the last 10 years, but recent allegations of widespread improper grade changes in Memphis last year called into question if graduation rates were marred.

The results of a deeper probe of seven schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month. But Shelby County Schools officials said a number of strategies have contributed to the district’s growing number of graduates and they believe better monitoring of grade changes would protect the integrity of those numbers, including sudden jumps.

“It’s our goal to aggressively increase academic performance and graduation rates at a more rapid pace, and we’ve implemented a number of strategies to do so,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to see jumps in graduation rates alone as an indicator of improper grading practices.”

Grade changes had an impact on how many students graduated at Trezevant High School, the first school implicated in the controversy. Fifty-three students over four years obtained a diploma without passing the necessary classes, an investigation found.

Leaving high school with a diploma greatly increases a student’s chances of finding a job with a living wage and avoiding jail. But Tennessee policymakers have been pushing for more education beyond high school since college graduates and those with job certifications through technical colleges and similar schools have an even better chance of higher incomes later in life.

School districts often tie student performance to their graduation rates, citing better academics as one factor in rising graduation rates. In addition, federal law requires states to report their districts’ rates every year to monitor if some groups of students are lagging behind their peers.

Marisa Cannata, who consults with districts through Vanderbilt University on how to improve high schools, said getting a high school diploma “doesn’t mean that they’re college-ready.” The only thing the number of students who graduated truly measures is “accumulating credits in a timely manner.”

“I think of them as only one indicator of how well a school is serving a student,” she told Chalkbeat. “True improvement is going to be reflective in multiple indicators.”

Nonetheless, the district’s rising graduation trends reflect a similar upward trajectory for state and national graduation rates. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the total number in a high school cohort.

Tennessee is ahead of the pack in figuring out how to get more students to stay in and complete high school, said Jennifer DePaoli, the lead author on a recent national report analyzing federal graduation rate data.

“Tennessee is a state that we would say has really proven itself when it comes to raising student graduation rates,” she told Chalkbeat, adding it “still has some room to grow.”

In 2013, Tennessee was applauded in a national graduation report for outpacing the national average in nearly every category, including students from low-income families and students with disabilities. But in DePaoli’s report released last week, Tennessee’s growth in graduating its students has slowed, and has the 8th highest percentage of black students who didn’t graduate on time. The state’s graduation rate for students from poor families still ranks among the highest in the nation, however.

Before 2013, most students in the former suburban district, commonly referred to as legacy Shelby County Schools, consistently exceeded the state and national average with as many as 96 percent of students graduating on time. The number of students graduating from Memphis City Schools, which dissolved in 2013 after city school board members voted to consolidate with the county district, lagged behind the national and state average, hovering between 62 and 72 percent.

Legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools graduation rate compared to U.S. (2008-2012)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

Since then, more students have graduated from high school. After the merger in 2013, the county split again into seven school systems.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to have 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2025. The district, which is the largest in Tennessee, now sits at 79.6 percent for the class of 2017. Official numbers for the class of 2018 are expected to be released this fall.

Shelby County Schools, municipal districts, and the Achievement School District compared to U.S. (2013-2017)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

In the middle of all that, Tennessee raised the bar for students to graduate. The state had been stung in 2007 by a national report saying the existing state standards were weak and misled parents about how their students ranked against their peers nationwide. So, Tennessee started phasing in new graduation requirements in 2009 that increased the number of credits needed to graduate and introduced the current end-of-course exams.

Also, the state changed how schools and teachers are evaluated. In 2009, Memphis City Schools got a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul how the district recruits, trains, and evaluates its teacher workforce.

In 2010, the Tennessee Department of Education got a $500 million federal grant to recreate how it measures school success and partially tie teacher evaluation scores to student test results.

The state-run Achievement School District was born from that grant and started taking over low-performing schools in 2012. (The district didn’t have graduating seniors at high schools until 2014.)

In recent years, Shelby County Schools began to use data to help target students who might be at risk of dropping out. That kind of early warning system is part of a growing national effort to use mounds of student data to remove barriers to graduating, such as getting help with schoolwork, or pointing families to community resources to reduce absences early in a student’s high school career.

The district has also added reading specialists for ninth grade students who are behind and night and online classes for high school students so they wouldn’t have to wait until summer to retake failed courses. And before a student fails a class, district leaders have increased the number of offerings during the semester for a student to recover their grade.

In Memphis-area schools, 11 of the 48 in the region have fewer students graduating now than they did in 2008. Four of them dropped more than 5 percentage points:

  • Wooddale High School
  • Raleigh Egypt High School
  • Bolton High School
  • Ridgeway High School

Though there are 13 schools that have seen significant growth in the number of students who have graduated since 2008, they haven’t kept up with the district’s average ACT score, a common indicator of a student’s readiness for college.

But graduation rates and the ACT don’t actually measure the same things, said DePaoli.

“A lot of people would like to argue if graduation rates go up, we should be seeing gains in ACT scores and things like that,” she said. “We would like to see those things track together, but I don’t think there’s enough alignment there.”

Still, she said, “if kids aren’t getting higher scores on the ACT but the graduation rate is increasing, there is something to be really fearful of.”

Five Memphis area schools have now exceeded the district average for students graduating. Here are the 13 with the most growth:

  • B. T. Washington High School*
  • Oakhaven High School*
  • Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School (formerly Frayser High School)**
  • Hamilton High School
  • Sheffield High School
  • Westwood High School
  • Kingsbury High School
  • Manassas High School
  • East High School*
  • Craigmont High School*
  • Fairley High School**
  • Mitchell High School
  • Whitehaven High School*

*Schools that now exceeds Shelby County Schools’ graduation rate
** Taken over by the Achievement School District in 2014

Below you can look at your high school’s graduation rates over the years.

What went down

‘There was no cyber attack,’ investigator says of Tennessee’s online testing shutdown

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Questar’s unauthorized change of an online testing tool — not a possible cyber attack, as earlier reported by the company — was responsible for shutting down Tennessee’s computerized exams on their second day this spring, the state’s chief investigator reported Wednesday.

An independent probe determined that “there was no cyber attack,” nor was any student data compromised, when thousands of students could not log onto the online exam known as TNReady on April 17.

Instead, investigators said, Questar was mostly responsible for this year’s testing miscues. The main culprit was a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool designed to let students turn text into speech if they need audible instructions.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson reviewed early findings of his office’s internal review and the external investigation by a company hired by the Education Department during a legislative hearing in Nashville.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told lawmakers that Tennessee is docking Questar about $2.5 million this year out of its $30 million contract because of the online problems that plagued many students and schools during the three-week testing window.

Payments being withheld are punitive, as well as to cover the state’s costs to address the problems, she said, adding that other discounts could follow.

Last week, McQueen announced that the state plans to launch a new search this fall for one or more testing companies to take over TNReady beginning in the 2019-20 school year. She said a track record of successful online testing is a must.

The text-to-speech tool worked fine last fall when a smaller number of high school students tested online. But the state said Questar made a “significant and unauthorized change” to that feature before the launch of spring testing that affects the vast majority of Tennessee students.  

“We now know this decision led to the severity of other issues we experienced during online testing,” the Education Department said in a statement.

House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. Jeremy Faison asked the comptroller to review the state’s contract with Questar, particularly related to reports of a possible cyber attack. Wilson’s office also looked into other technical snafus that disrupted student testing for days, prompting the legislature to pass emergency laws that make this year’s scores inconsequential.

“We believe that the student testing issues occurred primarily because of how Questar set the student assessment system up to work,” said Brent Rumbley, the comptroller’s information systems audit manager.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies during Wednesday’s hearing, where specialists in the state comptroller’s office also testified.

On the second day of exams, Rumbley said, those issues manifested themselves in a suspiciously high volume of internet traffic to the testing platform.

“That’s what led the Department of Education and Questar to believe that there may have been a cyber attack,” he told lawmakers. “This traffic eventually shut the system down.”

Even though Questar upgraded the processing capability of its equipment in response, students and educators continued to report problems logging in, staying online, and submitting tests until Questar turned off the text-to-speech tool beginning May 1.

The comptroller’s office also found that Questar was ill-prepared to handle the fallout from the technical glitches. For instance, the company struggled to manually recover the high number of tests that students couldn’t submit online. And school personnel calling the customer service line experienced wait times as long as 60 minutes, prompting many to just hang up.

New details emerged Wednesday about other testing problems, too.

On April 25, a Questar employee “inadvertently overrode” custom rosters statewide that allowed schools to match students with available testing devices. “As a result, teachers and test coordinators had to scramble to get students the tests they should take,” Rumbley said.

The next day, more problems erupted when an internet cable was severed by a dump truck in a traffic accident in Hawkins County.

“According to the vendor that manages the fiber optic line, 21 districts were without internet from approximately two to four hours,” said Rumbley, adding that neither Questar nor the department could have prevented the outage that day.

Lawmakers will get an expanded look at the Education Department and its testing program in November when Wilson’s office presents the results of a year-long performance audit, along with findings from a massive survey of Tennessee educators about TNReady.

The two-hour hearing gave lawmakers a platform to take jabs at McQueen and her department for their handling of testing.

Rep. Bo Mitchell admonished the Education Department for tweeting on the second day of testing that Questar “may have experienced a deliberate attack” that morning.

“This gets into the public trust and throwing out information to the public from the Department of Education that the failure was a hack … Whose decision was that to put that out into the public domain without any proof?” asked Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville.

McQueen clarified that the department never used the word “hack,” but reported that the testing system was experiencing a “pattern of data that was consistent with a cyber attack.” The description was based on what was known as the time, she said.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, said Questar’s $2.5 million penalty “seems like a smack on the wrist” given the disruption caused by the company’s mistakes.

McQueen responded that the state is withholding almost $11 million invoiced by Questar for online testing as it continues negotiations. She added that the state’s biggest testing expenses stem from printing and transit costs for paper materials used by about half of its students this year. The state is transitioning to computerized testing and has decided to slow the switch for a second time in the wake of this year’s challenges.

Justin P. Wilson

Questar officials told Chalkbeat last week that the company plans to pursue the state’s new contract next year, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh told McQueen that he doesn’t want the Minnesota-based company involved after it completes its current contract.

“I don’t think we can let Questar get in the ballgame again,” said the Ripley Democrat.

The proposal will be competitively bid, said Wilson, adding that Questar’s past performance will be taken into account.

For more on how Tennessee got here, read why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.