It's done

Tennessee’s messy testing season is finished, but how much the scores will matter is up in the air

PHOTO: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images
The state board committee is expected to make recommendations to lawmakers and the rest of the board for adjusting virtual school rules.

Tennessee students turned in their last standardized exams on Wednesday, capping more than three weeks of on-again, off-again computerized testing that has bedeviled school communities and called into question the future of the state’s testing system.

Since TNReady testing began on April 16, more than 2.5 million test sessions have been submitted online by some 317,000 students — more than ever before in Tennessee, according to the state Department of Education.

But the numbers make for an awkward superlative given the problem-plagued administration of this year’s exams. Technical glitches have been blamed on a range of issues including a cyber attack, a fiber optic cable severed by a dump truck in rural Tennessee, and a system error that caused 1,400 students to take the wrong assessment.

Bottom line: Students have struggled to consistently log on, stay on, and submit their tests. The frequent interruptions have required schools to be nimble with their schedules and spurred state lawmakers last month to pass emergency legislation that weakens how the scores will be used.

“While this was a rocky experience on certain days of the testing window, and we are empathetic to the frustrations that our students and teachers have felt, they have completed a key moment in this transition to online assessment,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said in a late-day statement to reporters.

The state reported that no school system stopped testing due to computer problems — and that every district’s online completion rate was at or near 100 percent. The numbers were enough, she said, to meet the required federal threshold for 95 percent of students to complete a state assessment.

Another 300,000 or so younger students finished their paper-and-pencil tests as of last week. However, it was computerized testing in high schools and some middle grades that consumed the headlines.

“We are continuing to learn from what we experienced [with] this administration, both on paper and online, and identifying ways to improve,” said Gast, pledging a thorough state analysis of results “to identify any impact the online interruptions may have had.”

The state also will examine irregularity reports, which Gast said districts were encouraged to submit “if they felt the student did not have a chance to demonstrate his or her knowledge of the standards due to the online issue.”

But how the results will be used is up in the air due to legislation that appears to gut the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, a new grading system for schools, and a “priority list” that determines interventions for the state’s lowest-performing schools. But Tennessee lawmakers were clear that “no adverse action” may be taken based on this year’s results.

That may also put the state at odds with a federal education law requiring states to hold schools accountable based on several measures including student achievement. In Tennessee, TNReady provides that measure. State and federal officials have been in talks for weeks trying to navigate both the federal law and the state’s emergency measures. Tennessee’s Department of Education expects to share guidelines with districts soon on how the data should be used at the local level.

“The new legislation impacts many areas,” Gast said, “and our goal is to implement the language as written while honoring the spirit in which it was passed.”

In the meantime, Tennessee will move ahead with scoring the tests through its vendor, Questar. Although the computerized exams were administered in fits and starts, the digital format allows that scoring to be expedited. Paper tests also have been shipped to the Minnesota-based company to be scanned and scored in the coming weeks.

The state plans to share early results for high school end-of-course exams with school districts later this month, and for grades 3-8 by mid-June. Fuller score reports will be distributed to families and districts during the summer.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly dip — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores were mostly flat or dipped this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance declined in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered — in the midst of testing — that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things. (Editor’s note: After this story’s initial publication, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen revealed what the analysis found. Here’s that story.)

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not as much in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.