Amanda Nixon has waited a long time to see how her fifth-grade students in Memphis perform on Tennessee’s new standardized test.
Last spring, her students at Riverwood Elementary School didn’t get to finish their tests after technical and logistical problems led state officials to cancel the assessment altogether for grades 3-8.
But Tennessee leaders promise a different story next week, with a new testing company, a slightly revised test, and a new game plan that slow-walks the state into online testing. That means classes like Nixon’s, which will use printed materials this time around, should be able to measure their knowledge for the first time on a test based on the Common Core standards, which Tennessee brought to classrooms beginning in 2011. (Next school year, the state is moving to revised, Tennessee-specific standards.)
“I am really excited because I have been wanting an assessment that is aligned to our standards for quite a few years,” Nixon said. “I feel like this has been a change I’ve been waiting on for so long.”
Tennessee’s new TNReady assessments were supposed to provide the feedback that teachers like Nixon hungered for last year when the state’s first online test debuted under the oversight of Measurement Inc., a small testing company based in North Carolina. But it turned out that TNReady wasn’t so ready, and the state’s high schoolers were the only students able to take the tests all the way through.
After the testing fiasco — which began on the first day when students logged on and couldn’t get the test to load — Tennessee has a lot riding on its second try. The state Department of Education has planted its flag in the ground with TNReady and higher standards, touting them as the means to continue Tennessee’s claim of having the nation’s fastest-growing test scores.
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she’s confident things will go smoothly during the three-week testing window that ends on May 5. Questar, a large-scale testing company based in Minneapolis, will administer TNReady this time around.
“We’re in constant communication, not only internally to make sure everything goes smoothly, but with our test partner,” McQueen said this week during a school visit in Shelby County.
Already, the possibility of widespread technical failures is off the table because most students will take the test on pencil and paper. Delivery problems also have been ruled out. The testing materials arrived this week in shrinkwrapped packets to schools across the state.
Still, some teachers are concerned whether the test will match what they’ve been told to teach. And that anxiety will hover until this summer when they receive their students’ scores — results that also will figure into teachers’ evaluations.
“Your pay is connected to the way your students perform,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher and president of the local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association union. “We don’t know what to expect, since it’s a new test.”
TNReady has been billed as a significant shift away from multiple-choice tests of yore, when students could guess on every question. Now, students also have to write some answers, as well as complete multiple-choice questions with more than one correct answer.
Veronica White, a learning coach at Sherwood Middle School in Memphis, is mostly confident that her students are prepared for the content. It’s the new format that concerns her. “It’s overwhelming for our kids because they’re just used to multiple choice,” she said.
Her concerns are warranted — and not just due to the format.
Again and again, McQueen has warned teachers, students and parents that TNReady is harder than previous state tests and that scores will go down, just as they did for the state’s high school students last year — and as they have in other states that have shifted to Common Core-based tests.
“It has a depth to it in writing and performance skills that we haven’t had in our state before,” McQueen said this week.
Leticia Skae, a seventh-grade teacher at Nashville’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet School, taught at a high school last year, so she’s been through the TNReady drill. After her high school students took it, her teacher evaluation score dropped from a 5 to a 4 on a five-point scale. But she wasn’t surprised; she knew the new test was harder and that the rollout was less than ideal.
“I thought that was pretty good, because it was the first year we had the test and there was some craziness with the test,” she said. “That gave me something to work with.”
Here’s how the Tennessee Department of Education wants to weight TNReady in evaluations.
Both Skae and Nixon are teacher fellows with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a think tank aligned closely with the State Department of Education. In that capacity, Skae got a firsthand look at some of the test’s reading passages when she reviewed them for the state, and the experience put some of her concerns at bay.
“We were able to say this is disjointed, or this text doesn’t represent our students, or this test is misleading,” she said. “It gives me faith that there are other teachers doing item review.”
State officials are counting on the next few weeks of testing to get the state back on track by resetting its accountability system and earning back the trust of both educators and the public.
“Overall, we are not only confident at the state level, but we are also seeing a renewed confidence in our districts,” McQueen said Thursday. “They have been working every day for this moment, and they are ready to take this test.”