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.“
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.