TNReady Audit

Tennessee was ‘overly ambitious’ in pushing online testing, says state’s chief investigator

The state’s chief investigator on Wednesday released 1,700 pages of mostly negative feedback from teachers about Tennessee’s testing program and blamed testing company Questar for the majority of this year’s online blunders.

Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson also scolded the state’s education department for inadequate oversight of the program known as TNReady and said the push to switch to online testing “may have been overly ambitious.”

The comptroller’s audit was released as Tennessee prepares to invite more companies to submit proposals to take over TNReady testing beginning next fall. That request for proposals, which initially was to be released this month, is now set for early 2019 and will include requirements for both online and paper testing.

Questar’s unauthorized change to an online tool was the main culprit behind the technical problems students experienced during a messy return to computerized testing this spring, according to the audit. That tool, which enabled students to turn text into speech if they needed audible instructions, had worked fine the previous fall when a smaller number of high school students had tested online. But Questar changed the feature without the state’s approval before springtime tests taken by the vast majority of Tennessee students.  

The Minneapolis-based company also failed to staff its customer support center sufficiently, resulting in lengthy call wait times and high rates of abandoned calls after students struggled to log in, stay online, or submit their exams.

The report confirms many of the early findings the comptroller reported in June. Among them: “There was no cyber attack,” refuting a possible explanation Questar and state officials had offered on the second day of testing problems.

A separate report released Wednesday includes feedback from more than 12,000 teachers who responded to the comptroller’s survey on TNReady. Sixty-six percent of respondents reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the state’s administration of the test.

The comptroller said the education department didn’t do enough to make sure testing would go smoothly, and the audit cited a lack of written detailed processes to make sure Questar met its deadlines.

Questar and the department also failed to adequately track students’ tests once problems emerged, or to update districts on when to expect the tests to be recovered, leaving schools uncertain if their students completed the required exams.

"We have concerns that the department has proceeded with large-scale procurements involving millions of dollars under intense time constraints."Tennessee Comptroller Audit

On a broader level, the audit pointed out that Tennessee’s chronic problems with TNReady could be traced back to the legislature’s 2014 order to pull out from a multi-state online testing collaborative — something outside the education department’s control.

Tennessee had been preparing for three years to participate in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known as PARCC, and use the tests it was creating. Political backlash over the Common Core academic standards prompted the state’s abrupt exit — and the need to find another testing company quickly.

Why Tennessee lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

The testing program has struggled ever since, including the cancelation of most tests in TNReady’s first year due to online failures in 2016 under previous vendor Measurement Inc. Candice McQueen, who became the state’s education chief in 2015, fired that North Carolina-based company and hired Questar to pick up the pieces. But, according to the comptroller, the tight timelines set the state up for problems under both vendors.

“We have concerns that the department has proceeded with large-scale procurements involving millions of dollars under intense time constraints,” the audit said, adding that department leaders “should avoid being forced to implement assessment processes without allowing for adequate time to respond to and resolve potential issues with assessment vendors.”

In line with the comptroller’s recommendations, the state already has slowed its transition to online testing to include only high school students this school year, plus one science field test for grades 5-8.

Questar also has been docked almost $4 million from last year’s $30 million contract. The company will oversee TNReady testing again this school year to close out its agreement with the state, and Questar officials have told Chalkbeat they plan to submit a new proposal to continue testing in Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen talks in June about changes to Tennessee’s testing program, as superintendents chief Dale Lynch listens.

McQueen told lawmakers Wednesday that the issues raised by the audit have been addressed and that Questar must meet additional requirements this year.

She also reported 64,000 high school students on nontraditional schedules just completed fall exams successfully online. But the real test, she acknowledged, will come next spring when all high schoolers take TNReady.

“The smooth testing experience we saw this fall gives us more confidence in the improvements we are making to help our vendor test online at scale,” McQueen said.

The legislature’s Government Operations Committee has ordered McQueen’s successor to report back to lawmakers before spring testing begins.

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: