‘We do not need to start over,’ educators advise Haslam on TNReady

Tennessee’s 3-year-old standardized test is rife with problems big and small — but doesn’t need to be scrubbed and rebuilt from scratch, according to a new report summarizing what educators told Gov. Bill Haslam during his recent statewide “listening tour.”

The report instead recommends fixing the test, called TNReady, both online and on paper, and forging ahead with Tennessee’s transition to computerized testing.

The 14-page summary, which was delivered to Haslam on Tuesday, gleaned feedback from about 150 educators who met with the outgoing Republican governor during six roundtable meetings across the state in August and September, along with input submitted online.

Haslam said the responses will help inform TNReady’s administration this school year under Questar, the state’s testing company, as well as the selection of Tennessee’s next vendor to manage the assessment beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

“We must get this right and this report and recommendations will help us get there,” he said in a statement.

The governor launched his tour after technical glitches marred the online administration of TNReady last spring in hundreds of middle and high schools, while problems also emerged with paper tests given to younger students. It was the third straight year of testing headaches in the TNReady era, placing the assessment’s credibility at an all-time low after emergency legislation rendered the most recent results inconsequential.

But “we do not need to start over,” the report said. “We must never let the implementation challenges we’ve experienced cloud the real value TNReady provides: detailed, actionable feedback for educators and families about students’ strengths and weaknesses to help inform instruction.”

The report was submitted by an advisory team of four respected educators tasked with summarizing the feedback. The advisers encouraged the next governor, who will take office in January after Haslam’s second and final term, to “strongly consider the findings” in formulating state testing policies going forward. They also warned of the costs of making large-scale changes in testing under a new administration, and noted that many of their recommendations already are being followed for the current school year.

The problems with TNReady are numerous — from flimsy boxes of paper tests that make for difficult handling to unequal access to computer technology among districts, educators told Haslam.

Solutions to many of the smaller problems — such as sturdier boxes and releasing the state’s testing manual earlier so educators have adequate time for review — are already in the works. In addition, the state will conduct a large-scale “stress test” to its computer-based platform on Oct. 23 to troubleshoot problems before fall and spring testing.

But challenges such as a shortage of devices are more difficult to address and should be reviewed with an eye toward improving students’ digital skills and the logistics of online testing, the report advised.

“Access to a one-to-one technology environment varies considerably across the state and carries with it a large cost,” the report said.

First Person: “I spoke with the governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.”

Some teachers told Haslam that the state needs to invest more in technology before moving ahead with digital testing, while others recommended reverting to paper tests until the risk of online disruptions can be reduced. Still others suggested that each district should make that decision.

The report recommended sticking with the state’s current timeline for the digital transition, which Education Commissioner Candice McQueen rolled back after last spring’s problems so that only high school students will take TNReady online this school year.

“We live in an ever-increasing digital world,” the report said, noting that tests can be scored faster on computer than on paper — another big concern for educators who said they want to receive more timely results. The state plans to deliver this school year’s preliminary results by May 20, earlier than last year, assuming that all tests are completed and shipped on schedule.

Educators also had advice for picking the state’s next testing vendor, which they said should be a proven company with experience in online testing and large-scale student assessments.

“Given the considerable challenges that Tennessee has experienced during the last three testing cycles, we strongly recommend the state partner with a third-party technology expert to work alongside [the department] and the state’s chief procurement officer to set the highest standards for what is required in terms of technology capability and delivery going forward,” the report said.

You can read the full report below.