Leaders with Pearson Inc. have been criss-crossing Tennessee as the testing giant takes over the job of managing standardized testing for almost a million of the state’s public school students.

Under terms of a $40 million, two-year contract that started in July, the company recently hosted a dozen kickoff meetings in six cities to introduce itself to district leaders. Staff also answered questions at another round of regional meetings for local testing teams hosted by Tennessee’s Education Department in the same six cities: Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Cookeville, and Knoxville.

For many people in those rooms, the introductions were actually re-introductions. Pearson was Tennessee’s main testing company from 2003 through 2014, when it developed, administered, and scored tests known as TCAPs for grades 3-11. The state veered toward a different vendor after the legislature pulled Tennessee out of a multistate testing consortia that used Pearson and was associated with the politically divisive Common Core academic standards.

Tennessee is now in the era of TNReady, a test entering its fifth year and aligned with new standards that are considered more rigorous than earlier TCAPs in the state’s quest to raise expectations for students. Leaders consider the program critical to measuring student progress and holding teachers, schools, and districts accountable for results.

“We’re excited to be back to build assessments in Tennessee for now and for the future,” said Elizabeth Hanna, the company’s vice president of school assessments. “A lot of our employees who have worked on Tennessee before are still in place, especially in operations and scoring.”

One of 18 states managed by Pearson, Tennessee is a high-profile client for the firm’s Bloomington, Minnesota-based assessment division. Rocked by three straight years of online scoring and test administration problems under two other companies, the state hired Pearson in May to take over from Questar, which is also based in Minnesota, and hopefully restore confidence in its TNReady assessment program.

The state also ordered Pearson to administer TNReady this school year on paper, which gives the company more than a year to ramp up for a return to computer-based testing beginning with the 2020-21 school year.

In a recent Q&A with Chalkbeat, Hanna talked about having Tennessee back with Pearson, whether the one-year pause in online testing was necessary, and what will be different about TNReady this year for students, parents, and educators. Below, we have lightly edited her answers for brevity and clarity.

What has Pearson done so far to ramp up as the state’s new vendor?

We’ve had face-to-face meetings with the department and subcontractors to go over the work plan, production schedules, and communication protocols. As part of our contract, we led 12 introduction sessions across the state to share who we are and to give a high-level description of our contract and what we’re responsible for. These sessions were very well attended by superintendents, district testing coordinators, and technology supervisors who were invited by the department. 

[The company is now preparing to administer its first tests in December to high school students who are on non-traditional block schedules, but the bulk of testing for all grades will happen next spring.]

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn stipulated in the contract that Pearson must have boots on the ground. Have you set up shop yet in Tennessee?

We will be opening a small office in Nashville. We don’t have that done yet, but we’re working on it. This will be a small team that includes two to three additional local hires who will be supported by our team members in San Antonio, Iowa City, and Austin.

This is a paper-only testing year under a legislative order urged by Gov. Bill Lee and Commissioner Schwinn. Does this order make the transition easier for Pearson?

We would have been prepared to follow whatever policies were determined by the state, and we support whatever legislative decisions were made. Our proposal was written with online testing in mind, and the decision for a paper-only year was made afterwards. We’re really agnostic about this and could have done either. Dual-mode is in most of our contracts, and we’ve developed processes to support that. We can scale up or keep on paper as long as the state needs for us to do that.

What is Pearson doing to ensure a smooth administration when the state returns to computer-based testing in the 2020-21 school year?

We’re confident. Just to show you our scale, we administered more than 4.7 million tests in our busiest testing week this spring. In one hour, we peaked at more than 178,000 tests. And we completed more than 21 million tests in 2019. So we have true scale that can accommodate Tennessee and the rest of our customers pretty robustly. We have secure and configurable products. We are committed to privacy and security, and our systems go through annual third-party external audits.

We also work closely with lots of other vendors, different platforms, and systems such as Windows or Chrome. We work with different operating system companies and understand what they’re doing so that we’re prepared to deliver our tests on those platforms.

Given the baggage associated with the TNReady brand, has there been talk of changing the test’s name?

That has not been a discussion.

What can students, parents, and educators expect to see from Pearson this year that they’ve not had in previous years under TNReady?

We are contracting with eMetric, which is based in San Antonio, to do dynamic reporting for Tennessee with a secure portal for all accountability programs. This will include a portal for parents and a portal for educators. Parents will be able to access their student’s results online, while educators can access class-level reports. This will be in addition to traditional paper reports that everybody is familiar with and that we’ll still be doing.

Once there’s more than one year of data in the portal, parents will also see progress from year to year. This was part of our proposal. Commissioner Schwinn has talked about the reporting piece being really important to her, and this is in lockstep with that. We will also meet the state’s reporting deadlines.

Below are two maps — one showing where Pearson now has testing contracts and the other where the company maintains operations for its assessment division.

Pearson State testing contracts map 2019