TNReady Testimony

As lawmakers grill McQueen about Tennessee’s testing problems, here are five things we learned

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (center) testifies before Tennessee lawmakers along with Questar CEO Stephen Lazer and Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has pledged to ensure the accuracy of Tennessee’s new standardized test as frustrated lawmakers are seeking explanations for a second straight year of testing problems.

McQueen and her staff offered new details about the latest breakdown on Tuesday in their first appearance before legislators since reporting that the state’s testing company incorrectly scored paper tests for some high school students this year. She called scanning mistakes the culprit and said the state is working closely with Questar to prevent such problems in the future.

A year earlier, the botched rollout of online testing led to the test’s cancellation for grade-schoolers, the firing of Tennessee’s previous test maker, and the decision to phase in online testing over three years.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
McQueen (far left) pauses with her team, including Questar CEO Stephen Lazer (far right), to hear a few final comments from lawmakers.

The state is ultimately responsible for this year’s “failure,” McQueen said, but she let Questar CEO Stephen Lazer take some heat too.

“We at Questar own that it happened,” said Lazer, who sat beside McQueen during the hearing. “It should have been caught (earlier), and it won’t happen again.”

Earlier in the day, Gov. Bill Haslam called the controversy overblown because this year’s errors were discovered as part of the state’s process for vetting scores.

“I think the one thing that’s gotten lost in all this discussion is the process worked,” Haslam told reporters. “It was during the embargo period before any of the results were sent out to students and their families that this was caught.”

The three-hour hearing at the State Capitol was dotted with occasional testy exchanges as lawmakers bemoaned the challenge of rebuilding trust in Tennessee’s problem-plagued assessment. They questioned why teachers, as part of their evaluations, appear to be the only ones being held accountable for this year’s results.

“Are we terminating this contract (with Questar)?” asked Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley who is running for governor. “… Have there been any modifications (to the contract) as a result of this error?”

McQueen responded that the contract hasn’t changed, but that the state’s work plan with Questar has.

“We have had intense conversations between the department and the vendor on quality improvements and expectations,” she said, “and we are moving forward with very specific deadlines.”

The hearing also featured testimony from teachers, several teachers unions, a superintendent, a school board member, and a researcher. Some called for a three-year moratorium on using TNReady scores for accountability purposes; others urged the state to “stay the course.”

Here are five things we learned:

1. The scoring problem came to light because of discrepancies flagged at one school.

As they looked at the data, educators at Blackman High School in Rutherford County noticed that some of their highest-performing students scored low on one standard in English language arts. That raised a red flag since those same students had demonstrated proficiency on that standard in other assessments. The district contacted the state, which requested an investigation from Questar, which traced the discrepancies to a scoring error when scanning paper tests. “The scanning program was incorrect,” Lazer said. “The scanners read the documents right, but the data was in the wrong columns.”

2. Tennessee plans to release scores next year before the new school year begins.

The state has gotten pushback for this year’s protracted scoring schedule that ended this month, more than two months after the school year began. While the scoring process takes longer with a new test, McQueen said the state is committed to getting all scores out by mid-August next year. She said districts will receive their preliminary high school scores by the end of May for inclusion in students’ final grades. Final high school scores will go out in July. For grades 3-8, scores should be delivered by mid-August at the latest, she said.

3. The state is banking on its transition to online testing to expedite high school results.

After the online fiasco that soured TNReady’s first year, McQueen’s decision to slow-walk the state back into online testing also slowed the subsequent scoring and delivery process. But 2018 marks the first school year that all high schoolers will take the test online again — a change that state officials feel confident about after 25 districts successfully made the leap this year. (Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students in grades 3-4.)

4. There is talk of an outside investigation into Tennessee’s testing failures.

Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville asked McQueen if she would object to a top-to-bottom review of Tennessee’s testing challenges from an independent third party such as the state comptroller’s office. “Not at all,” McQueen responded, adding that her department has sought proactively to improve the process.

5. McQueen plans to reconvene her testing task force — again.

One of her first acts as commissioner in 2015 was to form a task force to study concerns about over-testing and recommend improvements. So grave were testing-related issues that McQueen followed up with a second study panel in 2016, even as the state has remained committed to TNReady as the lynchpin of its system of accountability. Now the commissioner wants to reconvene that task force this year to begin looking specifically at 11th-grade testing and diagnostic assessments used by districts, among other things. McQueen told lawmakers that she hopes to have the first meeting by December.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to identify the Rutherford County school where scoring concerns were flagged.

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jennifer Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”

Chalkbeat explains

Four reasons Tennessee likely won’t go back to paper testing

As another wave of problems with online testing plague Tennessee schools, one of the solutions proposed by state legislators — go back to paper exams — is a stretch for a state that has invested millions into electronic exams.

In short, reverting to pencil-and-paper tests would be akin to ordering iPhone users to go back to flip phones. It almost certainly won’t happen.

Two Memphis-area state lawmakers want to ban the online version of TNReady starting next school year until the state comptroller determines its problems are “fully and completely fixed.” And other lawmakers suggest districts should be able to choose between paper and electronic testing..

(Other amendments that would ensure this year’s test results wouldn’t count against teachers, students, or schools passed Thursday.)

The list of problems has grown since the first day of testing Monday, affecting about two dozen districts, including the four largest ones in Tennessee. The meltdown follows the monumental online failure in 2016 when a server crash prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most of state testing that year.

Here are four reasons why it’s unlikely Tennessee won’t go back to paper testing despite current overwhelming frustrations:

Superintendents think they’ve gone too far to turn back now. Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead cautioned against rash decisions in the heat of the moment.

“When things like this happen, it’s easy to overreact,” he told Chalkbeat. “But we’ve come too far. We know that online testing is the future. If we turn back, it will take a long time to get back to where we were.”

And school systems and counties have poured millions into infrastructure and devices, said Dale Lynch, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

“We don’t want to back up. We want to get it right, though,” he said.

Paper is more time consuming. With online testing, McQueen said Wednesday, “we can get test materials [and scores] back or to folks much quicker.”

Preparing paper tests requires hours of sorting and labeling exams. And if the materials arrive late, like they did for several districts this month because of severe weather at Questar’s printing center in the Northeast, the time crunch is especially stressful.

Granted, a top-notch online system that protects against cheating and hacking could be more expensive than a paper version, said Wayne Camara, the research chair at ACT who has long overseen test security.

“The issue of cost is relative.” he said. Multiple versions of computer tests are necessary to help safeguard against cheating, especially via social media.

“If you’ve having to produce 10 or 15 forms of a computer test, most likely it’s not cheaper.”

If Tennessee switches back to paper testing, it will be one of few states nationwide. A recent analysis by John Hopkins School of Education listed 11 states that were still using paper tests in 2016 for elementary students. For middle schools, it was nine states.

Nearly across the board, those states with no experience with online testing did worse in national online testing.


Read more about Tennessee’s most recent performance on “the nation’s report card.”


There’s security issues with paper too. The alleged cyber attack on Questar’s data center Tuesday spraked a statewide outcry, but switching back to paper won’t eliminate security issues.

“Both digital- and paper-based testing are certainly susceptible to cheating,” said Camara, the testing cybersecurity expert. “I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a significant reduction of security measures or cheating with computers, it’s just different.”

One of the largest state test cheating scandals happened in Atlanta with paper tests when principals and teachers changed student answers. That’s much harder to do online.

Jacinthia Jones and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.