All in the family

TNReady’s new testing company also owns the old one

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Stephen Lazer (far right), who formerly worked for Educational Testing Service and is now the CEO of Questar, appears before a Tennessee legislative hearing last fall with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to discuss scoring problems with the state's 2017 TNReady exam under Questar. ETS owns Questar and is now stepping in to oversee TNReady's design, while Questar will continue to administer the exam this fall.

Tennessee’s decision to bring aboard a second testing group to work through headaches with its problem-plagued assessment keeps the job within the same family.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Monday that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over design work for TNReady to allow Questar, the exam’s current overseer, to focus on administering the test.

While McQueen described ETS as a “different vendor,” the group actually owns Questar.

The New Jersey-based nonprofit organization purchased Minnesota-based Questar in 2017 for $127.5 million to serve as its for-profit arm. Questar CEO Stephen Lazer came from ETS, where he was senior vice president over student and teacher assessments.

ETS is a big player in the testing world. The group designs and administers more than 50 million tests per year in 180 countries, and its assessments include the Nation’s Report Card given through the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.

McQueen said ETS has a good track record in Tennessee for creating its social studies and science tests, as well as its teacher certification exams. She said the state has received no complaints about testing directions developed by ETS, while it’s received numerous complaints about directions developed by Questar for TNReady math and language arts assessments.

“They are sophisticated in their content development,” McQueen said of ETS, noting that the group also has a larger staff and management structure than Questar.

State spokeswoman Sara Gast said Tuesday the testing groups “had no relationship at all” when the state Department of Education entered into its first contracts with ETS in 2015 and then with Questar to take over TNReady in 2016.

“ETS acquired Questar last year, but Questar has remained a separate legal entity, and we have two separate contracts and they are two separate companies,” Gast said.

The state plans to amend its contract with ETS to add TNReady design work and is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years. The state fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. in 2016 after TNReady’s failed online rollout prompted McQueen to cancel most TNReady exams that year.

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.

McQueen said this week that Questar fell short in responding to testing problems this spring. And in an interview last week with Chalkbeat, she said several days of outages for the computerized test appear to have stemmed from decisions made by Questar employees who did not consult with the state.

One was caused by an overnight software upgrade in Minnesota that hampered logins for Tennessee high school students on April 25. The other involved a computerized text-to-speech feature for students needing audible instructions. Questar disabled the feature after determining it was preventing students statewide from logging in and submitting their exams on April 30.

McQueen said the state is reviewing the second matter.

We have a belief that Questar potentially made a change from what they did with text-to-speech in the fall to what we experienced in the spring. And that was … not an approved change from the department,” she said. “Our contract is very clear that if any change is made, it has to be approved through the department.”

Questar’s chief operating officer, Brad Baumgartner, did not immediately respond to calls Tuesday seeking comment.

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: