New TNReady test will be harder to ‘game,’ say education officials

Test-taking strategies, such as “when in doubt, guess C,” soon will be obsolete in Tennessee, at least when it comes to the state’s end-of-year standardized assessments.

TNReady, the new math and English assessment for grades 3-11, is designed to go deeper than the bubble sheet tests of the past, and be “harder to game,” officials say, meaning that students won’t as easily get points for guessing.

The test also should convey more information about how well students are prepared for the world outside of school — by asking more questions about real-world scenarios and challenging students more than ever before.

“We’re moving into a better test that will provide us better information about how well our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters recently during sneak peek at some of the questions.

The questions are meant to require more than rote memorization, added Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of data and research.

“We recognize the way we have designed TNReady means this is not a test you can game,” she said.

Designed by North-Carolina-based Measurement Inc., TNReady will include several types of questions. Some questions take advantage of the online format and require students to use drag-and-drop tools. Others ask students to write short paragraphs explaining how they solved a problem. And still others are multiple choice, but allow students to select multiple answers. Altogether, the test not only will require students to remember facts they’ve memorized, and imitate procedures they’ve seen their teachers do, but show that they understand concepts on their own.

Tennessee began its transition to a new kind of test in 2010 when the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, with academic benchmarks that focus more on student understanding than on memorizing a formula or procedure that can get the right answer. The state was supposed to move in 2015 to the PARCC, a Common Core-aligned assessment shared by several states, but the legislature voted in 2014 to stick to its multiple-choice TCAP test while state education leaders searched for a test similar to the PARCC but designed exclusively for Tennessee students. In the meantime, several states have switched to tests aligned to the Common Core or similar standards, which are supposed to take aim at one of the oldest and most potent criticisms of tests: that they force teachers to “teach to the test” and focus unduly on memorizing facts and testing tricks that students promptly forget after completing the test.

“These tests have much more emphasis on student reasoning and depth of knowledge than one has seen in the past,” says Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Education and an adviser in developing similar tests in other states.

However, he notes the challenge of developing questions aimed at deeper learning that also can be graded in a timely manner.

“It’s not down to a science yet,” Briggs explained.

The benefit of multiple-choice tests is that they can be scored almost instantly. The downside is they don’t necessarily give insight into how a student knows the answer. “The challenge is, how do you get at a student’s reasoning with items that aren’t fully open-ended?” Briggs asked.

Ilana Horn, a mathematics education professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, said she recently looked through sample questions posted online for parents by the state Department of Education.

“Some of the questions hit the mark,” Horn said, adding that they required students to think deeply about mathematical concepts. She cited a math question for grades 3-5, requiring students to click on a grid to create a figure with an area of 18 square units. A student couldn’t answer correctly merely by memorizing the formula for area.

“If they learned math procedurally and you asked them what area is, they’d say length times width,” she said. “And when you showed them the figure and said, ‘Where’s the area?’ they would blink at you.”

But she said other questions — like one that asks students to choose the answers that round up to eight — still are too focused on procedure.

“The problem is, when kids memorize an equation just for a test, it doesn’t give them deep understandings of what they’re doing mathematically,” Horn said. “And then they forget.”

Although at least some TNReady questions will do a better job of telling teachers what their students know and how they know it, Horn said tests always will be imperfect measures of student learning and teacher quality because they also convey information about cultural backgrounds and poverty.

For example, even the math portion of TNReady will require more literacy skills than the old TCAP did — and how well a student can read and write depends in large part on what a student is exposed to before ever stepping foot in a classroom.

As for why students will need to be strong readers to do well on a math test, Briggs says the idea of what it means to be ready for college or a career is changing.

“Historically, there’s been an attempt to have as little writing as possible on math assessments. You didn’t want to mix up math and verbal skills,” he said. “But our conception of what it means to be mathematically proficient is changing. You have to communicate what you’re doing.”