not so fast

Why Tennessee legislators share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Exasperated with another round of testing problems in Tennessee public schools, state lawmakers have used their bully pulpit to rail against Education Commissioner Candice McQueen for her management of the state’s beleaguered standardized test.

Last week, they called her in to the State Capitol for a two-hour grilling about online snafus and a reported cyber attack that got TNReady testing off to another rocky start. Several called for McQueen’s resignation.

The next day, lawmakers dramatically stepped in and passed legislation so that this year’s scores mostly won’t count on student grades or in important decisions about teachers and schools, essentially gutting the state’s vaunted accountability system, at least for this year.

Few legislators have been willing to talk about the elephant in the room, but several education advocates have.

Just four years ago, PARCC was to be the vehicle for Tennessee students to begin testing online using questions aligned to Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts. At the time, Tennessee was a Common Core state and had been working for several years toward sharing an online test through a multi-state consortia known as PARCC, short for the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness.

But in April 2014, six months before testing was supposed to begin and amid political backlash over Common Core, the legislature voted to pull out abruptly from the partnership.

The decision, which was against the wishes of Gov. Bill Haslam and former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, set the state’s collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test — pronto — and find a new company to administer it. Measurement  Inc., a small North Carolina-based firm, was hired for $108 million in November 2014.

Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test and prep for launch. State lawmakers gave Measurement Inc. about a year, with the first testing starting in the fall of 2015 for some high school students. But the real test came in February 2016. That’s when most students in grades 3-11 logged on and the platform collapsed on the very first day, the victim of too many students trying to test at one time with too few computer servers.

McQueen, who had replaced Huffman after the deal was inked with Measurement Inc., subsequently scrubbed tests for most students that year and fired the state’s testing company. A few months later, she turned to Minnesota-based Questar to pick up the pieces for $30 million annually beginning in July of 2016. Things went slightly better the next year with TNReady, though not perfectly.

This year, a lot was riding on Tennessee officials to get TNReady right in a return to statewide online testing. But when more technical problems erupted on the first day this spring, McQueen immediately became the target for blame.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“We do want to have that one throat to choke,” she told reporters who asked who should be held accountable, before adding that “there’s lots and lots of people involved.”

During a legislative hearing that same day, Rep. Mark White reminded his colleagues about their pivotal 2014 decision to pull out of the testing consortia.

“General Assembly, we had some ownership in this,” said the Memphis Republican, who also voted to exit the partnership. “We had a testing company originally four years ago …[but] we pushed back against the commissioner and the Department of Education and said we don’t want PARCC for political reasons. … We fussed about Common Core and we fussed about the standards.”

Tennessee wasn’t alone. In 2014, it was one of 18 states that comprised the consortia. The partnership is now down to four states — Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico — along with Washington, D.C., and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"General Assembly, we had some ownership in this."Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis

The exodus was due to mostly Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration for incentivizing states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. But superintendents back home were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.

Online testing has gone fairly smoothly for those that stayed in the partnership, and PARCC is now the only assessment fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“States that have continued with the program now have four years of longitudinal data measuring student performance and growth over time,” said Arthur VanderVeen, who leads New Meridian, the company that manages the partnership.

The shared test also has been a money saver.

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former secretary of education, said economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC. More importantly, she said, the test has been an effective measuring stick.

“This is not about a brand. It’s about quality of assessment,” said Skandera, who formerly chaired the partnership’s board. “PARCC allowed us to measure the things we cared about — critical thinking, higher expectations aligned to higher education. In New Mexico, it’s been a big step in the right direction.”

Below, you can view a timeline of Tennessee’s testing journey from PARCC to TNReady.

Interesting moment

Tennessee civil rights leaders push back at superintendents’ call to pause state testing

PHOTO: Peyton Hoge
Members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition participate in the group's third annual summit in February in Nashville. The group formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty.

A group of civil rights leaders in Tennessee is urging the state to press on with standardized testing — placing them at odds with the superintendents of the state’s two largest and most diverse districts.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph asked Gov. Bill Haslam this week to press pause on TNReady testing to address widespread problems with the assessment.

But the members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty, pushed back on Wednesday. The group argued that a moratorium on testing is not the answer to technical problems that plagued many students this past spring in the state’s transition to computerized exams.

“The quality of the TNReady assessment, which is aligned to our state standards, is not in question … [but test delivery issues] must be fixed,” the coalition said in a page-long statement.

“We urge all of our education leaders and policymakers to press forward, tackling our testing challenges head-on, and rebuilding trust by staying the course and getting it right for every student in Tennessee,” the group wrote.

The statement was signed by 13 education advocates including the leaders of the NAACP’s state conference, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville.

The exchange represented a unique moment between the coalition of civil rights advocates and the black superintendents of schools in Memphis and Nashville. Those districts represent one-fifth of Tennessee’s public school students, and most of the student population in their cities are black or Hispanic.

In their Aug. 3 letter sent on Monday, Hopson and Joseph told Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, that they have “no confidence” in TNReady.

PHOTO: MNPS
Shawn Joseph greets students in Nashville, where he has been director of schools since 2016.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

(Tennessee’s gubernatorial election is set for Nov. 6. Read what the candidates say about testing and other big education issues here.)

Calling for a “do-over” on the state’s testing program, Hopson and Joseph said that three years of missteps and outright failures administering TNReady has tanked public trust to “irretrievably low levels.”

Haslam has not commented about the superintendents’ request but told Chalkbeat last month that he believes TNReady is a good test with delivery issues that need to be fixed.


READ: Here’s the list of everything that went wrong with TNReady this year


The governor also said he believes passionately that Tennessee’s gains on national tests since 2011 stem from state policies grounded in higher academic standards, a test that measures student progress based on those standards, and using the results to hold students, schools, and teachers accountable.

The coalition backed that agenda on Wednesday. “Our Coalition believes that the path forward lies in maintaining a focus on setting high expectations, monitoring student and school performance, and prompting decisive action when they fall and stay behind,” the group said.

The coalition is a nonprofit organization funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, according to a spokeswoman for the group. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also is supported by the Gates and Kellogg foundations. You can read our full list of supporters here.)

Below is the coalition’s full letter, including individuals who are members of the group’s steering committee.

Taking aim

Declaring ‘no confidence’ in TNReady, Memphis and Nashville superintendents call for pause in state testing

The leaders of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are asking outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam to pause state testing indefinitely to let the next administration address a bevy of problems with the assessment.

In a letter sent Monday afternoon, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph wrote that a “do-over” is needed on the TNReady testing program to salvage the confidence of students, parents, and educators.

“After years of repeated implementation failures and missteps by multiple vendors, we believe educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels,” they wrote Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen.

“We are challenged to explain to teachers, parents, and students why they must accept the results of a test that has not been effectively deployed,” they continued.

A spokeswoman for Haslam did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for McQueen said the commissioner had not yet received the letter, which was dated Aug. 3.

The message from the superintendents — whose districts in Memphis and Nashville represent nearly a fifth of the state’s public school students — further elevates testing as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

However, Hopson and Joseph said action is needed before the next administration and General Assembly take office in January.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

That’s unlikely to happen, though. Haslam has fiercely championed having a state assessment that measures student progress based on Tennessee’s new academic standards. He told Chalkbeat last month that he does not want problems with testing to undo state education policies that he believes have led to gains on national tests.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said Tennessee already has a working group on testing that’s composed mostly of educators.

“We’ve engaged educators extensively in the development of TNReady, and for the past several months we had educators from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools serving on our Assessment Task Force to advise our next steps with TNReady,” Gast said in a statement.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s high school in Memphis prepare to take their TNReady geometry test online last spring.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials. But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results be moot for this year for accountability purposes.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online again. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Hopson and Joseph, whose districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding, also want more state money to offset the technology costs related to TNReady.

“Districts including ours spent tens of millions of dollars over the years investing in new technology to prepare for an online assessment that never came to fruition,” they wrote.

“These investments essentially amounted to unfunded mandates by the State, and in the end resulted in largely wasted local taxpayer resources that could have been directed into teacher salaries, professional development, and other critical needs. By the time the State achieves a fully functioning online assessment system, our original investments will have been rendered obsolete …”

Gast said the state has invested an additional $1.5 billion in technology for schools since 2011, including doubling the amount of annual recurring technology funding. She noted that students have used computer tablets purchased for testing for other instructional needs during this time.

You can read the full letter below.