Some Tennessee students lost their TNReady test answers despite state’s reassurance they wouldn’t

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat

The frequent technical interruptions that marred online testing in Tennessee this year were bad enough for Cathy Palmer, a teacher at Central High School in Memphis. But students losing their test answers — despite the state’s assurance they wouldn’t — was just too much.

She recalled a case of a student who logged in to the second part of her history test April 17 and discovered the first part she completed the previous day was marked as incomplete.

“We were told that if this happened, we should make sure the student was using the same computer, sign in to that particular part, and submit the test. When we did this for her, her entire essay was gone,” Palmer said.

In most cases where tests didn’t submit properly, students were able to log back in later and submit their tests, according to the state. It was inconvenient, but the answers were stored just as the state’s test maker, Questar, said they would be.

But in an unknown number of cases statewide, students lost test answers. Chalkbeat interviewed teachers and administrators from three school districts who said students lost work. Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the test recovery process worked “in the vast majority of cases” but, when asked, did not provide the number of instances where it did not.

“In some cases, Questar’s team needs additional time to recover these tests, and they are still working through those,” she said last week.

The complication raises further questions about how well this year’s online state test, known as TNReady, will show what students know. All high school students were required to take the online version this year, and 59 districts opted to offer it to middle school students. The rest of Tennessee’s third- through-eighth-graders are taking TNReady on paper.

The state’s online system experienced widespread interruptions on at least four days since testing began April 16. There were log-in issues on the first day, a reported cyberattack on the second, and a problem with lists of students taking the test later in the week after the state’s testing company, Questar, updated its software the night before. An issue with a feature that reads test questions aloud for students with disabilities also caused problems for students trying to login and submit their tests.

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, said this has happened “several days” during the testing window, but did not provide specific numbers either.

“We do not have an exact count. In some cases, we are still waiting to see if the recovery process works,” the district said in a statement.

“The recovery process can take a few days, and therefore answers can still appear to be missing even though they are being recovered,” the district said in another statement. “If the recovery process fails for a student, we have been advised to consult with the Tennessee Department of Education on the best way to proceed.”

In Haywood County, two students lost their test answers and their parents decided not to retest them, a decision the superintendent, Joey Hassell, supported.

Students losing their test answers has been an issue throughout the testing window, said Rachel Phillips, a teacher in Sumner County. It happened to three of her students. She said Questar’s helpline has not been able to explain why it happens.

“They say, ‘I don’t know’ a lot of the time. When we push them and say that is unacceptable, they complete a ‘ticket’ and say they will send directions for how to recover the test. Then you follow the directions for recovered individual student’s tests. Or attempt to,” Phillips said. “The students get very frustrated and nervous that all the work they just did on the test is gone.”

Rick Eaton, the testing coordinator for Sumner County, said the district is still compiling the total number of students affected, but that all middle and high schools were impacted “to some extent.”

“Each of those content areas have 3 to 4 subparts to them. If you experience something in one subpart and an irregularity report for a subpart, the entire content area is invalidated,” he said.

Gast, the state spokeswoman, said local school districts have discretion on whether or not the student should retake the test in those instances. Districts can also submit a report for the online issues “if they believe those disruptions impacted students’ ability to show their knowledge of the standards,” which would invalidate the students’ test results.

Palmer said the student who lost her essay was told to retake that part of the test.

“About 10 minutes later, I noticed that tears were falling down her face. I asked if she was OK, and she said she was willing to re-write her essay, but, in her words, ‘I just can’t do it today,’” Palmer said. “It took me about two seconds to make the decision and tell her to log out. She did not need to be tortured like that.”

“Everyone in my school is very frustrated. Teachers feel frantic and confused amidst all of this chaos,” she continued.

State lawmakers passed two bills to mitigate the impact of this year’s test results on student grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability. But state officials are still interpreting what that means for its plan to comply with federal law, which requires test scores in part to fuel decisions about schools.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: