Just months before its next testing company is supposed to start, Tennessee has yet to receive its first bid

With just months to go before a company is supposed to take over Tennessee’s troubled assessment program, the state has yet to release its request for proposals, potentially putting its next vendor on course for another rushed timeline to testing.

The state’s education department had aimed to solicit proposals by December, receive bids by February, and make a decision by April. Now officials are looking at February to release the document that will outline Tennessee’s testing requirements after three straight years of headaches under two different companies.

The delay calls into question whether the state can stick with its timeline of choosing one or more vendors by this spring for a job that starts with the new school year. While a change in test administrators normally requires at least a year of preparation before testing begins, the next company would be expected to test some high school students in November, and then to administer the annual assessment to most Tennessee students in grades 3-11 in the spring of 2020.

Incoming Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn — who was recruited by new Gov. Bill Lee partly for her experience with assessments in two other states — acknowledges that the timetable is not optimal.

“If I look at other states, including the two that I’ve overseen in Delaware and Texas, the traditional timeline is that a new vendor has a year to set up processes that are really strong and then you execute,” she told Chalkbeat.

“That being said,” she continued, “the responsibility that we have at the department is to follow whatever guidelines, legislation, and expectations are set for us. The expectation is that we have a new vendor in place for next school year, and we will do whatever we can to ensure that is as strong a transition as possible.”

Leaders of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers organization, worry that the delay could set the state on a collision course with more testing problems.

“It is crucial that the state get this right as they search for a new testing vendor,” said President Beth Brown, adding that trust in the state’s assessment program is at an all-time low.

Buried in a recent state audit of the testing program known as TNReady was an admonishment that Tennessee’s assessment woes since 2016 can be traced, in part, to short runways given to its current and previous testing companies.

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

Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson

“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.”

Tennessee first hired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. in late 2014 to launch TNReady the next school year. Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test from scratch and prep for launch, but Measurement Inc. got just over one year. The rush order was necessitated by the legislature’s April 2014 vote to pull out abruptly from the multistate testing consortium known as PARCC amid political backlash over the Common Core academic standards.

Measurement Inc.’s online platform collapsed on the first day of testing in February 2016, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen eventually fired the company.

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

That set the stage for a rushed hire of Questar Assessment in the summer of 2016 to take over testing that fall. The Minneapolis-based company also struggled with computerized scoring and delivery, culminating last spring with days of technical disruptions that seriously undermined the test’s credibility with students, parents, and educators.

With pressure mounting to get testing right this time around, Tennessee embarked last summer on an ambitious process to solicit feedback from stakeholders and strengthen vendor criteria for its next contract.

But the comprehensive work, combined with a change in administrations, has required moving the goalposts several times for choosing Questar’s successor. Initially, the state had hoped to release its request for proposals last November.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee’s education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

As of last week, state procurement officials were conducting a legal review and evaluation of the document, but other steps remain before its release. The state comptroller must sign off, and Schwinn, who officially starts next week as education commissioner, said she plans to scrutinize the details, too.

Asked whether the state should rethink its entire timetable for moving to a new vendor, Schwinn called it “a fair question” given the delays.

“That is going to be an ongoing conversation,” she said. “What the outcome of that is, I can’t say one way or another. I can say one of the big responsibilities I have is to ensure that I give my honest opinion and we work out the best solution for Tennessee.”

All of the attention reflects the high stakes that Tennessee faces to fix its embattled assessment program to ensure accurate and reliable data about how students are performing.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure this RFP is as strong as possible so that Tennessee students have a successful testing experience,” department spokeswoman Chandler Hopper said in a statement.

It also shows that Tennessee has learned the hard way about the challenges of hiring testing companies in an era of online assessments, when few vendors have the expertise and capacity to handle large-scale jobs that require building, administering, and scoring computerized tests for older students and paper versions for younger ones.

“Vendors will say they can move mountains,” Assistant Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told members of McQueen’s testing task force in November. “We need to say: You can move a mountain? Show me!”

As for the timetable, her department is emphasizing the difference between a vendor having to start from scratch and merely taking a handoff.

“We are not soliciting a vendor to develop our assessment in this procurement, which is typically the case in other states and was previously the case for us,” Hopper said in a statement on Wednesday. “Instead, this RFP is focused solely on administration, which requires a much shorter timeline.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with an additional statement from Tennessee’s Department of Education.