Tennessee will transition back to online standardized testing, beginning with high school students

A high school student at DCIS Montbello leans toward a laptop on a table and looks intently into the screen. The hands of another student sitting to the right are seen on a laptop. The students were working on an assignment in class in May 2019.
High school students will take their annual state assessments electronically in 2021-22 under Tennessee’s plan to transition back to online testing. (Nathan W. Armes for Chalkbeat)

Six years after a massive technical failure ruined Tennessee’s online testing debut, the state aims to get computer-based assessments back on track with a new testing company after a three-year hiatus.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn recently decided to return gradually to online testing in the 2021-22 school year instead of pursuing an aggressive switch to include more grades, said spokesman Brian Blackley.

While high schoolers will take their standardized end-of-course exams online for the first time since 2019, students in grades three to eight will stick with paper — for now — on annual spring assessments for math, English language arts, science, and social studies.

Blackley said the goal is to ensure a smooth transition under Pearson, the state’s third testing company in five years, especially because school districts have purchased millions of dollars in new technology for remote learning during the pandemic.

“[Those systems] will continue to be tested and evaluated over the next year,” he said, “to ensure any future potential move to computer-based testing will be a smooth and seamless experience for every student and educator.”

Blackley said Schwinn based her decision on feedback from district superintendents, testing coordinators, technology directors, and state legislators.

Dale Lynch, who heads the state’s superintendents organization, said district leaders surveyed in May overwhelmingly supported pivoting high schoolers back online. About half of superintendents wanted middle schoolers tested electronically too, he said.

Paper-based testing is more expensive, requires more logistical coordination at schools, and takes the testing company longer to score.

“We certainly would like to have more grades move online, possibly even down to fifth grade, when it’s proven that the state can have a successful testing cycle online,” Lynch said.

“If you’ve ever watched all those trucks roll in with paper testing materials, you know it’s a very involved process,” he added. “There’s a lot of boxes to unpack and security issues to deal with.”

But Tennessee is all too aware that online testing has its challenges, too.

The state’s messy transition to computer-based testing began in 2016 while introducing a new assessment known as TNReady to align with new academic standards. That year, then-Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired Measurement Inc. after its online platform failed on the first day of testing. The company’s successor, Questar, was sidelined three years later after days of technical glitches undermined public trust in the reliability of 2018 test results.

Hired in 2019, Pearson has a longer online track record than either of the first two vendors for TNReady, which is part of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. But under the terms of a two-year, $40 million contract, Schwinn ordered that Pearson conduct its first testing year completely on paper to give the company sufficient time to ramp up its operations in Tennessee.

The testing giant had expected to resume the state’s computer-based assessment program during the most recent school year. However, the pandemic delayed the transition when testing was canceled nationwide in the spring of 2020. 

Now that districts have bought tens of thousands of new devices with federal relief funds, state officials wants to make sure they have adequate bandwidth and infrastructure to test high school students before expanding to more of Tennessee’s million public school students.

Officials with the state’s two largest districts, in Memphis and Nashville, say they’re on pace to relaunch online testing this year.

“We are prepared to assess our high school students online, along with any other grade levels, so long as the Tennessee Department of Education provides appropriate, well-tested processes and allows our district adequate time to prepare,” said Jerica Phillips, communications chief for Shelby County Schools.

Her counterpart in Nashville, Sean Braisted, said Metro Nashville Public Schools has successfully administered its own assessments across all grades in recent years. 

“We feel confident that if the systems function at the state level our schools will be able to successfully implement online testing for our students,” Braisted said.

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