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.

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”

Another pause

It’s official! Results from Tennessee’s ugly testing year won’t count for much of anything

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam and his education chief, Candice McQueen, speak with reporters Monday about how Tennessee will handle standardized test results this year because of technical problems administering the exams by computer.

Tennessee teachers and school districts can decide how to use this year’s standardized test results and won’t be penalized for low growth scores after another year of problems with the state’s computerized exam.

The state also will shift some responsibilities to a different testing company while deciding whether to extend Minnesota-based Questar’s contract to give the test past November, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced on Monday.

In addition, the state has hired two outside groups to sort through all that went wrong with TNReady during almost a month of testing that ended last week. One will look at the validity of the results to see if frequent online interruptions made the scores unreliable. The other will scrutinize Questar’s technology systems to determine why so much went awry.

The actions were announced as McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam faced reporters together for the first time in the wake of this year’s sloppy return to statewide computerized testing.

After weeks of being on the defensive, Haslam’s administration sought to take control of the situation and emphasize that testing — done correctly — is critical to improving student achievement across the state.

I still have full confidence that testing is the right thing to do,” said the Republican governor, finishing the last year of an eight-year term. I’m frustrated like everybody else that we had issues with the online portion of this. But having said that, do I think the test is a good test? I do.”

Haslam also said Tennessee must forge ahead with computerized testing.

We’re one of only 10 states that has not already moved [completely] to online testing. And so it’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is. And our students have to be prepared,” he said.

The decision to shield students, teachers, and schools from accountability for poor growth scores falls in line with emergency legislation passed by state lawmakers last month as reports of TNReady’s technical problems escalated. After weeks of studying the two new laws, McQueen and her team offered their first analysis of what the legislation means:

Teacher evaluations. The state still plans to include student growth scores in evaluations, but each teacher will have “complete control to nullify” that portion if they choose to rely solely on other measures, McQueen said.

Student grades. Local school boards will decide whether to incorporate TNReady scores into this year’s final grades. Many districts already have begun that process, and most are opting to exclude the results this year.

School ratings. Tennessee’s A-F rating system will not launch this fall as scheduled, although the state still will publish the achievement results that would have gone into them.

Priority schools. As planned, the state will release its “priority list” this fall of the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools, but this year’s test results will not be a factor. Instead, the list will be based on two years of previous scores for high schools and one year for lower-grade schools. “We will not be moving any schools based on that data into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said of the state-run turnaround program that takes over local schools and assigns them to charter operators.

Whether the adjustments put Tennesseee out of compliance with federal law remains to be seen, though. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act requires that student achievement — as measured by tests like TNReady — be part of each state’s plan for holding struggling schools accountable.

“We’ve been in lots of conversations with the U.S. Department of Education, and they are continuing to work with us on that,” McQueen acknowledged. “So what we will do is create something called a comprehensive support list, which is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act. That will include this year’s data, but there will not be any adverse action taken based on that comprehensive school list.

"It's important for all of us that we get this right. "Gov. Bill Haslam

After three years of testing problems, McQueen announced that Tennessee will create a “TNReady Ambassadors” program to improve customer service and will hire a full-time overseer to work with testing coordinators at the district level.

We did not have our expectations met in terms of customer service from Questar,” she said.

To that end, the state is reviewing its annual $30 million, two-year contract with Questar that expires on Nov. 30.

Haslam said changing companies in the middle of a school year wouldn’t be seamless because Questar will begin testing high school students on non-traditional block schedules this fall. There’s a little bit of a practical problem switching vendors right in the middle of that, so it’s part of negotiations we’re in the middle of,” he said.

McQueen praised Educational Testing Services, the New Jersey-based company that will take over the test’s design work while Questar focuses on test delivery. Also known as ETS, the vendor has had contracts with Tennessee since 2015 to create the state’s social studies and science tests, and to design many of its teacher certification exams. (ETS also owns Questar. Read the details here.)

It is a vendor that is well-known. It has a reputation for very high-quality work in terms of how they design tests,” she said.

Deeper dive: By getting testing wrong again, will Tennessee undo what it may be getting right?