Tennessee governor calls for pause on computer-based testing for one year

Gov. Bill Lee announced Thursday that he wants all public school students to take their state tests on paper next school year as Tennessee transitions to a new testing company.

The announcement comes in the same week that a similar legislative proposal advanced easily out of a House education subcommittee.

The one-year hiatus from computer-based tests will not affect TNReady exams this spring under Questar, the state’s current vendor whose contract expires this fall. High school students will still test online when the annual assessment begins on April 15 for most students. Those in grades 3-8 will stick with paper.

“We must ensure the utmost quality in our annual assessment,” Lee said in a statement, lauding legislative leaders for “their thoughtful approach on this matter.”

The announcement comes after three straight years of failures and hiccups with computerized testing in Tennessee. It also signals that Lee and his new education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, are not confident that the state’s next vendor will have enough time to prepare for a successful online administration by next spring.

Schwinn, who was hired by Lee partly because of her experience with testing in Texas and Delaware, has said a full year of preparation is best practice. In recent school visits, she told students, teachers, and parents that she was looking closely at having an all-paper testing year in 2019-20.

“One year of paper-based testing will give the new vendor a full year to properly stand up a Tennessee office, hire exceptional talent, and make sure the assessment is ready for Tennessee classrooms,” Schwinn said.

The legislative proposal is expected to move quickly with the sponsorship of Rep. Mark White of Memphis and Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville, Republicans who chair their chambers’ education committees.

“Our teachers and students deserve our best and this will give the Department of Education time to ensure that everything is running smoothly,” White said, while Gresham called the legislation “a step in the right direction.”

The new plan will be a mixed blessing for students, teachers, and administrators.

On the one hand, they want a problem-free administration of TNReady tests. On the other, school districts have been ramping up for digital testing for more than six years under an order by the state to invest in technology, hardware, infrastructure, and training for the TNReady era.

“While online testing in the long-run could reduce testing costs, our state simply is not ready,” said JC Bowman, who leads the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

The timeline to transition to a new company was delayed when the state invited vendors to bid in March, three months later than initially targeted in the transition to a new governor. The state also jumped through extra hoops to talk with stakeholders and scrutinize what Tennessee needs from its next testing company.

Under its revised timeline, Tennessee will receive bids by late next week and hire its next TNReady vendor in June.

Tennessee already has walked back its transition to online testing two times since 2016 when a wholesale switch failed miserably, prompting then-Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most of that year’s tests and fire Measurement Inc.

After more computer glitches happened under Questar, McQueen ordered that students in lower grades — some of whom tested online last year — will take their TNReady tests on paper this spring.