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.