Tennessee’s messy testing season is finished, but how much the scores will matter is up in the air

Tennessee students turned in their last standardized exams on Wednesday, capping more than three weeks of on-again, off-again computerized testing that has bedeviled school communities and called into question the future of the state’s testing system.

Since TNReady testing began on April 16, more than 2.5 million test sessions have been submitted online by some 317,000 students — more than ever before in Tennessee, according to the state Department of Education.

But the numbers make for an awkward superlative given the problem-plagued administration of this year’s exams. Technical glitches have been blamed on a range of issues including a cyber attack, a fiber optic cable severed by a dump truck in rural Tennessee, and a system error that caused 1,400 students to take the wrong assessment.

Bottom line: Students have struggled to consistently log on, stay on, and submit their tests. The frequent interruptions have required schools to be nimble with their schedules and spurred state lawmakers last month to pass emergency legislation that weakens how the scores will be used.

“While this was a rocky experience on certain days of the testing window, and we are empathetic to the frustrations that our students and teachers have felt, they have completed a key moment in this transition to online assessment,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said in a late-day statement to reporters.

The state reported that no school system stopped testing due to computer problems — and that every district’s online completion rate was at or near 100 percent. The numbers were enough, she said, to meet the required federal threshold for 95 percent of students to complete a state assessment.

Another 300,000 or so younger students finished their paper-and-pencil tests as of last week. However, it was computerized testing in high schools and some middle grades that consumed the headlines.

“We are continuing to learn from what we experienced [with] this administration, both on paper and online, and identifying ways to improve,” said Gast, pledging a thorough state analysis of results “to identify any impact the online interruptions may have had.”

The state also will examine irregularity reports, which Gast said districts were encouraged to submit “if they felt the student did not have a chance to demonstrate his or her knowledge of the standards due to the online issue.”

But how the results will be used is up in the air due to legislation that appears to gut the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, a new grading system for schools, and a “priority list” that determines interventions for the state’s lowest-performing schools. But Tennessee lawmakers were clear that “no adverse action” may be taken based on this year’s results.

That may also put the state at odds with a federal education law requiring states to hold schools accountable based on several measures including student achievement. In Tennessee, TNReady provides that measure. State and federal officials have been in talks for weeks trying to navigate both the federal law and the state’s emergency measures. Tennessee’s Department of Education expects to share guidelines with districts soon on how the data should be used at the local level.

“The new legislation impacts many areas,” Gast said, “and our goal is to implement the language as written while honoring the spirit in which it was passed.”

In the meantime, Tennessee will move ahead with scoring the tests through its vendor, Questar. Although the computerized exams were administered in fits and starts, the digital format allows that scoring to be expedited. Paper tests also have been shipped to the Minnesota-based company to be scanned and scored in the coming weeks.

The state plans to share early results for high school end-of-course exams with school districts later this month, and for grades 3-8 by mid-June. Fuller score reports will be distributed to families and districts during the summer.