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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.

Testing ESSA

One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

PHOTO: Sue Barr/Getty Images

After months of talks, federal and Tennessee education officials have come to terms on how to identify and address the state’s lowest-performing schools in light of last spring’s problem-plagued student assessment program.

Their agreement, which navigates conflicting state and federal laws over the use of test results, means the state Education Department will release three lists of challenged schools in the coming weeks.

One list — Tennessee’s highly anticipated roster of “priority schools,” which perform in the bottom 5 percent — will exclude scores from last school year’s beleaguered TNReady assessment. Issued every three years, this roster will serve as the basis for determining state interventions and supports for at least the next year.

Two other lists — both of which are new — will include those results in deciding which schools will receive additional federal funding.

The revised framework, which is designed to hold schools and districts accountable on student achievement, is more complex than initially planned for meeting the standards of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under the 2015 law, Tennessee is required to factor in its most recent standardized test results when it comes to school accountability. But technical problems that disrupted computerized exams last spring prompted the Legislature’s order to disregard 2017-18 TNReady scores when compiling Tennessee’s priority school list, the state’s highest-stakes vehicle for improving underperforming schools by making them eligible for interventions such as state takeover and charter conversion.

The dueling laws have required thoughtful discussions and additional footwork, according to Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Education Department.

“The U.S. Department of Education was clear in our conversations that the last-minute legislation did not change the federal requirement for states to use 2017-18 data in accountability determinations,” Gast told Chalkbeat last week.

As a result, to comply with the emergency state laws, the upcoming priority list will be based mostly on test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17 — not last school year — when charting the state’s school improvement strategies, interventions, and investments.

To satisfy federal law, a new CSI list, which stands for Comprehensive Support and Improvement, will identify the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools based on test results from all three years. This roster will determine opportunities for additional federal funding through several school improvement grants.

State officials emphasize that the CSI list, which will number about 85 schools, will have significant overlap with the state’s priority school list.

The other new accountability list, called ATSI for Additional Targeted Support and Improvement, will be based solely on last school year’s TNReady data. This list will identify schools with the lowest performance across student groups such as black, Hispanic, or Native Americans, or those who are economically disadvantaged, English learners, or have disabilities. ATSI replaces, for now, the state’s previously planned “focus school” list under its original ESSA plan.

“There is no adverse action that comes from being on the ATSI or CSI list,” Gast said. “The only changes for these schools is they will now be eligible for additional federal funding to support their students, and the department will be available to provide guidance to support improvement.”

"I think one of the frustrations for everyone is that the federal DOE is less flexible when adjustments need to be made based on real-world situations in each state."Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville

The state began rolling out its new school accountability details a few weeks ago, catching some district leaders off guard with the news of additional lists to keep up with.

“This kind of came at us out of the blue,” said Paul Changas, who heads research and assessment for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. “Given the complexity of the new accountability system, the addition of new categories will likely make our training efforts even more challenging.”

Rep. Eddie Smith, who sponsored the emergency TNReady laws, acknowledged that multiple lists may cause some confusion. But the Knoxville Republican said it’s the best way to keep fallout from the state’s testing problems from disrupting the flow of federal resources to struggling schools.

“While we do not want schools punished, we do want to make sure that any support needed by these schools is received,” Smith said.

He added: “I think one of the frustrations for everyone is that the federal DOE is less flexible when adjustments need to be made based on real-world situations in each state.”

Tennessee’s amended ESSA accountability plan, which federal officials signed off on in mid-August, will be in effect for the next year and possibly for several years to come. Because state law now prevents 2017-18 TNReady results from being factored in to most state accountability work going forward, Tennessee will have to submit another ESSA amendment for 2018-19 and beyond.

Below, find details about the lists of schools being released this month by the state, including the reward list that recognizes schools achieving the highest performance or progress.

Tennessee School Accountability Designations

List Purpose Eligibility What will happen
Priority Schools Identify and improve schools struggling with overall student achievement, in compliance with state law Ranked in state’s bottom 5 percent on student achievement based on 2015-16 and 2016-17 tests and did not earn overall TVAAS growth score of 4 or 5 in both 2015-16 and 2016-17 or 2016-17 and 2017-18; or has a graduation rate of less than 67 percent for the 2017-18 school year. Schools previously on the 2015 priority list will remain on the intervention track assigned to them based on their 2016-17 performance, and no schools will be assigned to the Achievement School District based on 2017-18 data. All schools new to the 2018 list will be placed on the Delta track, which requires da local school improvement plan in collaboration with the state. Locally authorized charter schools on the list are subject to charter revocation and closure at the end of the 2018-19 school year. State-authorized charter schools making the 2018 and 2021 priority lists will close at the end of the 2021-22 school year.
CSI Schools (Comprehensive Support and Improvement) Identify and improve schools struggling with overall student achievement, in compliance with federal law Ranked in state’s bottom 5 percent on student achievement based on 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 tests and earned a score of 3 or less in 2016-17 and/or 2017-18 under the state’s new school rating system; or had a graduation rate of less than 67 percent for the 2017-18 school year. (All schools in the Achievement School District are designated for CSI.) Newly named CSI schools will work with the state’s Office of School Improvement and are eligible for additional funding through federal school improvement grants.
ATSI Schools (Additional Targeted Support and Improvement) Identify and improve schools struggling with student achievement among one or more student groups, in compliance with federal law An overall score of 1 or less under the state’s new school rating system and ranks in state’s bottom 5 percent for at least one student group (i.e., black, Hispanic, or Native American; economically disadvantaged; English learners; students with disabilities); or ranks in bottom 5 percent for two or more accountability subgroups or racial/ethnic groups. Newly named ATSI schools will work with the state’s Office of School Improvement and its Centers for Regional Excellence and will be eligible for additional federal support. (Priority and/or CSI schools are not eligible for ATSI.)
Reward Schools Identify and reward schools with the highest performance or extraordinary progress in student achievement An overall score of 3 or higher on the state’s new school rating system. Schools are not eligible if any student group performs in the state’s bottom 5 percent for that group. Special recognition

listening tour

Haslam will hit the road to troubleshoot Tennessee’s testing problems

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Flanked by 37 educators serving as Tennessee's new "TNReady ambassadors," Gov. Bill Haslam announces the kickoff of a statewide "listening tour" aimed at improving administration of the state's standardized assessment.

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he won’t pause state testing this school year and instead will launch a statewide “listening tour” aimed at fixing problems that have hampered Tennessee’s TNReady assessment in its first three years.

Responding to calls for a break in testing from school superintendents in Memphis and Nashville and from 18 state legislators, the Republican governor said he’s committed to getting TNReady right before he leaves office in January.

“Throwing in the towel on the policies instrumental to our progress should not be an option,” Haslam said during a news conference at the state Capitol.

Critics quickly countered that the listening tour is really just a road show with a predetermined outcome.

“We are in the middle of election season and the governor is in his final days. What more can he add to the education debate after eight years, that he hasn’t already tried?” wrote JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, in a column following the announcement.

Haslam acknowledged “significant problems” with TNReady, which this spring was marred by technical disruptions during a second attempt in three years at statewide computerized testing. But he added that now is not the time to point fingers.

“Without aligned assessments, we don’t know where our students stand and where we need to improve,” he said.

Declaring that they have “no confidence” in the test, Dorsey Hopson and Shawn Joseph — leaders of Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, respectively — called earlier this month for a testing moratorium to let the next governor address the problems.

Now Haslam, who is term-limited after eight years in office, is trying to keep intact the linchpin of Tennessee’s blueprint for student improvement, which began under the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in the Race to the Top era. Haslam has stood by that sweeping overhaul — including a state test designed to measure how students are learning Tennessee’s new academic standards and to hold teachers accountable for the results. He believes passionately that the policies have led to Tennessee’s gains on national tests since 2011.

"I am committed to doing everything I can as governor before I leave to getting this right. "Gov. Bill Haslam

The listening tour will launch Friday in Knoxville, and will bring together teachers, testing and technology coordinators, and school administrators. Other stops are planned in Hamilton, Shelby, Williamson, Greene, and Gibson counties.

Haslam and his education chief, Candice McQueen, will attend the meetings, which will be facilitated by Wayne Miller, a long-time educator and retired director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

The governor also named a three-member advisory team to help guide the feedback sessions and develop recommendations for him and his successor. Those advisers are Cicely Woodard of Franklin, the state’s current teacher of the year; Hamblen County teacher Derek Voiles, named the state’s top teacher in 2017; and Mike Winstead; director of Maryville City Schools and this year’s superintendent of the year.

The new president of the state’s largest teacher organization expressed cautious optimism on Wednesday about the tour, especially given Miller’s involvement.

“TEA has worked previously with Wayne Miller on many issues, and we believe he can bring a practitioner’s perspective to the dialogue,” said Beth Brown of the Tennessee Education Association, which has been an outspoken critic of TNReady. “I think transparency is a big issue. There’s some good things that can come out of this if we can talk honestly about letting parents and teachers have access to large portions of questions from the state test.”

The state already has conducted multiple surveys with educators about this year’s testing experience and recently named 37 teachers and test coordinators to serve as “TNReady ambassadors,” advising the state Education Department and its testing companies. McQueen also meets frequently with an educator-laden task force to confer about testing matters.

In addition, Tennessee is developing its request for proposals for one or more testing companies to take the reins from Questar, the state’s current vendor. That request is scheduled to go out late this year for testing administration that would begin in the fall of 2019.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include reaction from two teachers groups.