Hear that sigh of relief? Online testing just finished in Tennessee – and it worked this time

One year after frozen computer screens and spinning cursors left many of her students and teachers in tears, assistant principal Tara Baker is giving Tennessee significantly higher marks for its handling of state tests completed just last week.

“I would have graded our state an F-minus last year, but this year was more like a B-plus,” she said of the state’s computer-based assessment.

“Everything went much much smoother and I’m very relieved,” said Baker, who coordinates testing for 2,200 students at Nashville’s McGavock, one of the largest high schools in the state.

In all, about 715,000 students in grades 3-11 completed 2 million tests statewide during the month-long spring testing window that ended on Friday. Most were taken using paper and pencil, while high schoolers stuck with keyboards and submitted about 700,000 tests online.

The last of the paper tests are being shipped this week to Minneapolis for scanning and scoring by Questar, the state’s testing company. Preliminary scores are to be delivered by May 20 for districts that met Monday’s shipping deadline and plan to include those results in student report cards.

The quiet conclusion to the annual TNReady testing season elicited a collective sigh of relief from families and educators across Tennessee and marked the first time in four years that the beleaguered assessment wasn’t marred by widespread technical snafus and breakdowns in the rocky transition to online testing.

“Aside from minor issues related to user error or local infrastructure limitations, the computer-based testing processes were completed without incident,” said Penny Schwinn, who cleared her own first big test as the state’s new education commissioner.

Hired in part because of her experience troubleshooting testing in Delaware and Texas, Schwinn took the helm of Tennessee’s education department in early February and identified a smooth test administration as her top priority this spring.

She quickly made changes so her department could monitor Questar’s administration of online tests in real time, deployed staff across the state to address problems, and oversaw a string of safeguards and customer service improvements ordered last year by her predecessor, Candice McQueen. The overhaul came after days of technical problems last spring led to emergency legislative orders that basically gutted 2018 results from student report cards, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

This time around — under changes stipulated in a revised contract signed last fall — Questar dedicated an entire computer infrastructure to Tennessee so that TNReady would not be affected by its clients in seven other states. Only weeks earlier, students in New York struggled with computer-based tests via Questar.

A high volume of internet traffic was just one of the issues that caused mass frustration last year when TNReady season opened with fits and starts. On one day, testing was interrupted when a dump truck severed a fiber optic cable in East Tennessee, while the online assessment was completely shut down on another day due to traffic patterns that resembled a cyber attack. A subsequent investigation debunked the latter theory and blamed Questar’s unauthorized change to an online testing tool.

As a result, the state docked Questar $4 million in pay and didn’t allow the company to make coding changes without state approval during the final year of its contract. The Minneapolis-based vendor is on track to be paid about $26 million for this year’s testing and is among an undisclosed number of companies seeking the state’s new testing contract for next school year.

“I’m glad we were able to give students and teachers a testing experience they deserve,” Assistant Education Commissioner Mary Batiwalla said Wednesday as she listed some highlights.

Successes included a 38 percent drop in calls to Questar’s customer service center and an average wait time of 10 seconds compared to 5 minutes last year, she said.

Schools made their own adjustments. At McGavock, where about 500 students tested every day for three weeks, Baker added a proctor to each classroom to support her test administrators and allotted more time each morning to get students started. “Once our students got logged on, things went pretty smoothly,” said the assistant principal, one of 150 educators who participated in former Gov. Bill Haslam’s “listening tour” last fall to troubleshoot TNReady problems.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam’s Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville’s McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate. (Photo courtesy of TN.gov)

Assuming that scoring goes without a hitch this spring, the smoother testing experience means that Tennessee will get back on track with its systems for using test score growth to hold students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable, according to Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner over policy and legislative affairs.

“We won’t have to make any changes to our accountability system to account for any testing anomalies like we’ve had to in recent years,” Fiveash said. “That’s going to let us implement our accountability model more consistently.”

For students, preliminary TNReady scores will count for up to 25 percent of their final grades, depending on what grade and district they’re in. More than half of Tennessee’s districts plan to incorporate those results, according to Batiwalla.

For teachers in tested grades, their students’ growth scores will account for 35 percent of their overall effectiveness rating, while classroom observations continue to determine the bulk of their evaluation scores.

Batiwalla said districts will receive the final TNReady scores in July, and the results will be announced publicly in August.

Next school year, testing will look different again in Tennessee. All of TNReady will be completed on paper to give the state’s next testing company time to ramp up for an online assessment for older students beginning in 2021. That change was ordered by the legislature this spring at the urging of Gov. Bill Lee.