Tennessee would take a year off from computer-based testing under legislative proposal

All Tennessee students would take their TNReady tests on paper next school year under a legislative proposal to give the state’s next testing company more time to prepare to administer computer-based exams.

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White said the idea is to let the new vendor “get the kinks out” before returning to online exams for older students in the 2020-21 school year.

“We really need one full year in order to test this to make sure everything is right,” said the Memphis Republican.

White’s bill, cosponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville, was approved late Tuesday by a House education subcommittee and heads next to the chamber’s full committee. It would not change plans to test high school students online this month under Questar, the state’s current vendor whose contract ends on Nov. 30.

A one-year online hiatus was not requested by new Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, but she would support it, according to AE Graham, spokeswoman for the education department.

“We appreciate and welcome the General Assembly taking a thoughtful approach to how to make the state’s yearly assessment work for students, teachers, and taxpayers,”  Graham said on Wednesday.

The proposal signals that legislative leaders aren’t confident that the state’s next vendor will have enough time to ramp up for online testing by the spring of 2020, when the bulk of Tennessee’s students take TNReady.

Tennessee has had three straight years of problems administering and scoring its annual 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. Last year, days of testing problems under Questar 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.

The timeline to transition to a new company got shortened when the state released its request for proposals from vendors in March, three months later than initially planned because of painstaking efforts to get the contract right, plus the transition in administrations under a new governor. The deadline for bids is April 11, with plans to sign a contract this summer. Because of the shortened timeline, the new vendor will have only months to prepare before some high school students test online in December and well under a year before the bulk of TNReady exams take place in the spring.

Schwinn has said a full year to transition to a new vendor is the rule of thumb. During her recent visits to Tennessee schools, she has told students, teachers, and parents that she’s looking closely at the possibility of an all-paper testing year in 2019-20.

White’s legislative proposal was met with mixed responses from local school leaders, whose districts were required to invest in technology, hardware, and infrastructure to switch to online state tests beginning in 2016.

“What we don’t want is another catastrophe, but more than anything we would like the department of education to be held accountable,” said Shante Avant, chairman of the board for Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

“I just wish they would get this right,” she added.

Lakeland School System, a smaller district near Memphis, has sought to make its students digitally literate, so online testing makes sense. But Superintendent Ted Horrell said he also wants a clean test administration.

“I would assume the legislature wouldn’t run a bill like this unless there was some doubt whether the state could run online testing well next year. Obviously we’ve have problems in previous years that we don’t want to repeat,” Horrell said.

The state’s superintendents have urged the education department not to let headaches stop the state’s switch to online testing. On Wednesday, the group’s executive director said he is disappointed by — but also open to — the prospect of taking a breath.

“We don’t want to do online testing if it’s not going to be successful,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Meanwhile, schools are preparing for spring TNReady testing that begins on April 15, with online exams for high school students and pencil-and-paper tests for younger grades.

Schwinn and her team are working closely with Questar to avoid a repeat of computer-based testing glitches that occurred Tuesday in New York.

Tennessee is requiring the Minneapolis-based company to use a computer testing platform that is independent from its infrastructure for other states it serves — a safeguard that Schwinn says gives her more confidence.

“We are optimistic about the way our students and teachers have interacted with the platform so far, the safeguards put into place to optimize the experience, and the changes Commissioner Schwinn and her team have made for the vendor,” said Graham.

Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.