In talks

Does Tennessee’s emergency response to testing problems conflict with federal ed law? Stay tuned.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the front podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on April 25, the last day of the 2018 legislative session, as the chamber's education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year's TNReady scores.

The trouble with developing an emergency exit plan in the midst of a fire is that it’s hard to think through all the details.

That’s how some are describing the recent flurry of lawmaking in Tennessee, where lawmakers passed two pieces of emergency legislation last month while the sky seemed to be falling down around Tennessee’s computerized test.

The 11th-hour bills were a response to public outcry over TNReady, the state’s problem-plagued standardized assessment, including concerns that daily interruptions to the online version had made the results unreliable. The intent of the legislation was clear: “No adverse action may be taken” against any student, teacher, school, or district based on this year’s results.

Now, staff members with the state Department of Education are in daily talks with federal education officials over whether the legislation has put Tennessee out of compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law that is also tied to funding.

They expect to have an answer by next week.

The 2015 law requires states to test students annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and Tennessee will accomplish that this year, albeit in a rather messy fashion. But ESSA also requires states to create systems that hold schools accountable for performance based on several measures that include student achievement. That’s the sticky part for Tennessee, where TNReady scores provide that measure.

Thus, even as the state legislation has helped school communities feel a little better about TNReady woes, it has raised a flurry of new questions about Tennessee’s plan under ESSA.

If the scores don’t count, do chronically underperforming charter schools now get a pass from being closed this year? Can schools that continue to hover in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent avoid state interventions? And how will Tennessee proceed with its plan to give schools A-F grades this fall — as also ordered by state lawmakers — if it can’t use standardized test scores to help grade them?

“We’re concerned that there’s now going to be zero accountability tied to these scores,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and served on the state’s ESSA working group. “Accountability prompts action. And if you don’t have an assessment that gives you a sense of achievement and growth, you don’t know who your low-performing schools are in order to take action, and you don’t know where your bright spots are that we can celebrate and learn from.”

Added Charles Barone, national policy director for Democrats for Education Reform:

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could skip our annual reviews at work and avoid the discomfort of getting the feedback necessary to get better at what we’re paid to do? That’s what Governor (Bill) Haslam and the Tennessee legislature have just done for those charged with the responsibility of providing high-quality educational opportunities for every child.”

"We’re concerned that there’s now going to be zero accountability tied to these scores."Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition

As Tennessee and federal officials iron out the wrinkles created by the bills — one of which has been signed into law and the other that’s expected to be — state officials are working to avoid asking for a waiver to federal education law. Waivers were a hallmark of the Obama administration and the previous version of ESSA, No Child Left Behind, but would be new territory under President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

The state might be able to get away with updating Tennessee’s plan under ESSA, which would only require that the governor sign off on it.

“Should a State wish to amend its plan, the Department will consider all amendments based on their compliance with the law,” said Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, in a statement. “The Department will continue to work with Tennessee to ensure that its approved plan is implemented with fidelity and in accordance with the law.”

Sara Gast, Hill’s counterpart in Nashville, said Tennessee’s Department of Education is “striving to be as thoughtful, collaborative, and efficient as possible as we work on this.” She added that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to “honor the spirit” of the legislation while also keeping the state in compliance with federal law.

“Our ESSA plan exceeded the minimum requirements,” Gast said, “and we still fully expect to meet our obligations under ESSA.”

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McQueen declares online practice test of TNReady a success

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Tennessee’s computer testing platform held steady Tuesday as thousands of students logged on to test the test that lumbered through fits and starts last spring.

Hours after completing the 40-minute simulation with the help of more than a third of the state’s school districts, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared the practice run a success.

“We saw what we expected to see: a high volume of students are able to be on the testing platform simultaneously, and they are able to log on and submit practice tests in an overlapping way across Tennessee’s two time zones,” McQueen wrote district superintendents in a celebratory email.

McQueen ordered the “verification test” as a precaution to ensure that Questar, the state’s testing company, had fixed the bugs that contributed to widespread technical snafus and disruptions in April.

The spot check also allowed students to gain experience with the online platform and TNReady content.

“Within the next week, the districts that participated will receive a score report for all students that took a practice test to provide some information about students’ performance that can help inform their teachers’ instruction,” McQueen wrote.

The mock test simulated real testing conditions that schools will face this school year, with students on Eastern Time submitting their exams while students on Central Time were logging on.

In all, about 50,000 students across 51 districts participated, far more than the 30,000 high schoolers who will take their exams online after Thanksgiving in this school year’s first round of TNReady testing. Another simulation is planned before April when the vast majority of testing begins both online and with paper materials.

McQueen said her department will gather feedback this week from districts that participated in the simulation.

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Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central Time and 9 a.m. Eastern Time in participating schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some high school students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.


Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018


The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.


Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches


“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”