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Two years after massive testing snafus, Tennessee will test more students online than ever

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Tennessee has been slow-walking its schools into online testing ever since a wholesale switch in 2016 went bust.

Now in its third year of the TNReady era, the state will test more students digitally this spring than ever before. And partly because of the decision to scale up gradually, leaders are promising that things will be different this time.

All high schoolers will test online when TNReady’s three-week testing window opens on Monday. And about 40 percent of districts have opted to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8, too. (See which districts here.)

Next year, all of those middle grades will test online, while third- and fourth-graders will stick with paper-and-pencil tests.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered the gradual transition last year after a statewide switch of every school failed miserably for TNReady’s debut, overloading the testing company’s computer servers and stopping the test in its tracks on the very first day. The failure eventually led to the cancellation of TNReady testing for grades 3-8 and the firing of North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. as Tennessee’s testing company.

"We know that regardless of how much preparation occurs, statewide testing is complex, with many moving parts."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

State officials said Thursday they are confident the new digital platform will work under heavy traffic, even as their new testing vendor, Questar, had headaches administering computer-based tests in New York on Wednesday. Some students there struggled to log on and submit their exam responses — issues that Questar leaders blamed on a separate company providing the computer infrastructure that hosts the tests.

Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the problems that occurred in New York should not happen in Tennessee.

Tennessee’s testing platform, known as Nextera, is built on multiple servers in multiple locations, so backups are in place if needed, she said. That wasn’t the case on the first day of testing in 2016 when students logged on to find cursors spinning and the test failing to load, eventually prompting McQueen to scrap the online assessment.

There are other changes, too.

“Nextera does not require continuous connectivity to a wireless network in order for students to work through the test,” Gast said. “This means it automatically stores students’ progress throughout their experience and is not constantly ‘pinging’ the network.

Last spring, no significant hiccups occurred when 24 districts opted to test their high schoolers online. And last fall, high schoolers who are on non-traditional block schedules completed 120,000 online exams across 97 districts. In addition, students statewide have taken some 780,000 practice sessions this school year — not only allowing Questar and districts to fine-tune their technology but also helping students get comfortable with online testing and the types of questions they will see.

“We know that regardless of how much preparation occurs, statewide testing is complex, with many moving parts,” McQueen wrote to the state’s superintendents earlier this week.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with reporters on Feb. 9, 2016, after technical problems halted the state’s new online assessment called TNReady.

Her three-page letter outlined her department’s strategy for providing “immediate support” if problems occur, including Questar’s call center, and daily webinars and text alerts for testing coordinators at individual schools.

“Questar will have support staff located strategically around the state so no district in Tennessee will be more than 90 minutes away from having on-the-ground assistance if needed,” said McQueen, adding that extra computer devices for testing can be loaned to any district that runs into problems.

TNReady is the state’s annual test to measure what students know and are able to do. It’s the lynchpin of Tennessee’s accountability system, with student growth scores incorporated into teacher evaluations and intervention strategies for low-performing schools.

Scores have been low since Tennessee switched to the new test and new academic standards, but state officials expect results to improve as students and educators become acclimated to both.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly dip — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores were mostly flat or dipped this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance declined in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered — in the midst of testing — that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things. (Editor’s note: After this story’s initial publication, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen revealed what the analysis found. Here’s that story.)

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not as much in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.