Tennessee seeks bids for testing company to oversee troubled TNReady program

After eight months of determining exactly what it wants in its next testing company, Tennessee invited vendors on Tuesday to bid for the contract to administer the state’s beleaguered TNReady program beginning next school year.

The state education department is looking for a single company to oversee the test both on paper for younger students and online for older ones, plus provide faster return of scores to local districts than in the first three years of TNReady.

Tennessee also wants stronger computer-based systems and improved training and customer service, both to prepare testing coordinators for annual tests and to troubleshoot when problems arise, according to the 86-page document outlining the state’s request for proposals.

The invitation went out following three straight years of problems administering and scoring the state’s annual TNReady assessment under two different vendors, starting with the failed transition to online testing under North Carolina-based Measurement Inc., which the state fired in 2016.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said the new guidelines set a high bar by requiring Tennessee’s next vendor to triple the state’s current online capacity to handle 500,000 students at one time, far more than needed now. The state also wants the vendor to maintain its computer-based testing system year-round.

“A state assessment system is kind of like a pop-up Amazon for a week,” she said. “You have to set up an entire online system and have it work almost on the spot. You do that once or twice a year as opposed to vendors like Amazon or Google who have their systems up all year round. So we are requiring this new vendor to have that maintained capacity, which we think will allow for a stronger system.”

The estimated annual price tag is $20 million, compared to $30 million being paid per year to Questar Assessment, the Minneapolis-based company whose contract ends on Nov. 30. But that amount could go up or down.

“The $20 million is an estimated maximum liability,” Schwinn told reporters after the document’s release. “That can certainly be lower than that. It can very certainly be higher than that and more commensurate with what we’ve seen under Questar. I think the idea is that we wanted to give a starting point in terms of what vendors can look at in their bids” before negotiations begin.

The document was released three months later than originally targeted due to the state’s painstaking efforts to get this contract right, plus the transition in administrations under a new governor.

It sets April 11 as the deadline to bid, with proposals being scored on May 6 and negotiations with the top choice beginning on May 13. The final contract is to be signed by June 13.

Schwinn acknowledged that the timeline is tight heading into a new school year, with some high school students taking the first tests in December and almost all students in grades 3-11 testing the following spring.

“In a perfect world, we know that best practice is to allow a vendor a full year for transition to a new assessment program,” she said, noting the need to secure facilities, hire staff, and begin preparations. “Given the context that we are in in Tennessee, my No. 1 priority is to ensure that we make the best decision possible to have a strong administration. We’ll move forward with a procurement. We have contingency plans in place.”

Those contingency plans could include administering all tests on paper next school year as the state determines the vendor’s readiness to give TNReady online to high school students and deliver a computer-based science test to grades 5-8.

“That’s going to be part of that evaluation over the summer once we have a vendor selected,” Schwinn said. “I think the most important thing is that we’re going to be making decisions that are in the best interest of the students and the teachers, and taking our time about what makes sense as we finalize who that vendor is.”

Questar Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner has said the company plans to bid again for Tennessee’s testing business, despite widespread online disruptions to students, teachers, and schools under its watch last spring. Days of testing problems led to two emergency legislative orders that basically gutted the results from student report cards, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems for at least the 2018-19 school year.

Schwinn declined to speak specifically to Questar’s chances but added: “It is an open procurement process and so we will evaluate the bids as they come in. But we will follow all state and federal laws on procurement processes.”

The search for a new testing company was ordered last June by then-Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. At the time, she said a track record of successful online testing would be a must if Tennessee wants to stay nationally competitive.

McQueen’s successor is equally committed to online testing and was recruited to Tennessee by new Gov. Bill Lee because of her experience with test administration in Delaware and Texas.

Even as the state seeks to beef up its computer-based testing systems, Schwinn emphasized that the test itself will not change, nor will its alignment with current academic standards or its level of rigor.

“Teachers and students should not expect changes from year to year in that respect,” she said. “This is more about how the assessment is given — the administration, logistics, and operations.”

You can find the state’s request for testing proposals here.

This story has been updated with new information.