Haslam worries TNReady testing troubles could unravel Tennessee education policy

Gov. Bill Haslam says he had a “pit” in his stomach every day of Tennessee’s testing season this spring when a parade of technical problems vexed students and teachers in the bumpy transition to computerized exams.

He also worries that three straight years of frustrations with the state’s 3-year-old standardized assessment, TNReady, could unravel policies that he believes led to students’ gains on national tests.

Now in the homestretch of his term-limited administration, Haslam is making his case for staying the course with Tennessee’s blueprint for student improvement, including higher academic standards, an aligned test that measures student proficiency, and policies that hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for results.

“Do we really want to go back? Do we really want to go back to when Tennessee was in the 40s out of the states ranked 1 to 50?”  the outgoing Republican governor asked recently in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat.

He also discussed the highs and lows of K-12 education during his eight years in office.

The highs came in 2013 when Tennessee students outpaced the rest of the nation in improvement on the Nation’s Report Card, or NAEP, and then kept that up in 2015, lifting the state toward the middle of the pack on national rankings.

Here’s why people are talking about Tennessee, a ‘bright green rectangle’ on a new U.S. map of student growth

The lows came with the failed rollout of the state’s own TNReady exam in 2016, and then subsequent problems with scoring the assessment in 2017 and administering the test online this past spring under testing company Questar.

Now, as the race to succeed him in office heats up, Haslam worries that, by getting testing wrong again this past school year, Tennessee’s next administration and General Assembly could end up undoing what he thinks it’s getting right.

TNReady became an easy mark for candidates of both parties after April, when technical disruptions exasperated school communities again across Tennessee. (Read what gubernatorial contenders are saying, based on Chalkbeat’s survey of Democratic candidates here and Republicans in the race here. Statewide primaries are on Aug. 2.)

Haslam knows the politics of TNReady, especially related to the state’s controversial decision to incorporate the results in teacher evaluations as part of a $500 million federal Race to the Top award under Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2010. (For this year, the Legislature opted to roll that back due to the recent testing mishaps.)

“If I’m running for office right now, I don’t know that I’d be planting my flag by TNReady, so I understand that,” he said. (You can listen to Haslam’s full quote below.)

But he believes passionately that the teacher accountability component has helped to move the needle on student achievement.

“One of my fears is that going forward, whoever sits in this governor’s chair next or whoever is the commissioner of education might not have that same commitment when the heat comes,” said Haslam, noting that every state has had difficulty transitioning to computerized testing.

“Hopefully Tennessee and the new administration won’t have the same struggles we’ve had this year with testing. But there will be some struggles; there just are by the very nature of it,” he said. “I worry that the struggles will cause us to say, ‘OK, we give. We’re no longer going to have an evaluation that’s tied to an assessment.’

“And I think that would be a real loss for the state if we gave up that central tenet that has been part of our progress,” he added.

Despite the problems in delivery, Haslam believes that TNReady is actually a good test that matches to strong academic standards.

“That makes the struggles we’ve had with testing all the worse,” he said.

In his final months as Tennessee’s governor, Haslam reflects on his education legacy. Read the full Q&A.