Tennessee’s education chief is pushing back after leaders of the state’s two largest school districts asked for an indefinite break from standardized testing.
“Pausing a state assessment would be both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in an Aug. 13 letter emailed to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.
“It would turn our back on the students we most need to ensure receive a world-class education.”
Hopson said that Joseph sent their letter on Aug. 3 both electronically and through the mail to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test, TNReady.
However, McQueen wrote that the state has still not received that letter. “Let me begin by sharing my disappointment that the letter you addressed to Governor Haslam and me has been shared widely in the media but has yet to actually be shared with the Governor or me,” she said in the letter.
McQueen emphasized that an annual statewide assessment is required by state and federal law and that without it, the state would have a harder time monitoring the progress of vulnerable students.
“Historically, it has been the students from racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English learners who have been most ignored and underserved by our schools when we have not had a statewide assessment that accurately measures student performance, or when we have not used the same measuring stick for all kids,” she wrote.
Hopson told Chalkbeat that McQueen’s letter was the first he had heard from the commissioner since their letter was sent. Joseph was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
The Aug. 3 letter from the two superintendents triggered a chain of responses. A group of civil rights leaders penned a letter last week urging the state to press on with standardized testing, while the school board of Knox County Schools voted to draft a letter expressing no confidence in the state Department of Education.
The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.
But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.
For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.
“It is important to note that Tennessee educators have been engaged extensively in the development of TNReady,” McQueen wrote in her Aug. 13 letter. “Tennessee teachers help to write questions, design the test, edit questions and forms, and review and finalize our state assessment.”
McQueen also addressed part of the superintendents’ letter that said districts spent “tens of millions of dollars” investing in new technology to prepare for online testing that didn’t work. Both Hopson and Joseph’s districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding.
McQueen said the state’s expectation was that technology would not be purchased “simply to take a test” and that there was no need for special technology to take TNReady.
“To suggest that an investment in technology is limited to online testing shows a misunderstanding of the increasing role of technology in education and undervalues the great work many of your teachers have done to enhance their teaching through technology,” she wrote.
Read McQueen’s letter to the superintendents in full below: