TNReady backlash

Tennessee lawmakers take matters into their own hands on TNReady testing problems

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee State Capitol

It was an extraordinary day on Capitol Hill in Nashville and, in many ways, unprecedented.

As reports of more problems with Tennessee’s standardized test escalated from their public schools back home, members of the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a sweeping measure to pull this year’s TNReady scores from accountability systems for students, teachers, schools, and districts.

A spokeswoman said Gov. Bill Haslam will sign the legislation.

The votes circumvented the legislature’s committee process but, after days of technical problems with the state’s return to online testing, lawmakers had reached a boiling point. In the midst of an election year, they rose to their feet and, one after another, railed against the Department of Education and its testing company, Questar, for their oversight of the beleaguered test.

Get more stories like this in your inbox!
Sign up for Chalkbeat newsletters here, and get the education news you care about delivered daily.

At midday, the Senate and House convened a conference committee as a bipartisan coalition of House members used passage of the state’s $37.5 billion budget as a bargaining chip. With lawmakers going back and forth to the governor’s office to confer, they tacked on their amendment to a bill sponsored by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville and Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville.

“The camel was already loaded down heavy, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Smith said of more testing glitches on Thursday. “The circumstances were so extraordinary that going through the traditional committee process did not serve our teachers or students. That’s why we did what we did.”

What they did was pass a bill to:

  • Let local school boards determine, between a range of 0 and 15 percent, what TNReady scores will count toward students’ final grades;
  • Prevent local districts from using the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers;
  • Ensure that none of this year’s TNReady data can be used to put a school on the “priority list” of lowest-performing schools eligible for state intervention; and
  • Nix the use of TNReady data in determining A-F ratings for schools, a system that’s to begin this fall

“It was clear many members of the General Assembly wanted to address concerns related to the recent administration of state assessments,” Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said in a statement. “The governor understands these concerns and did not oppose the legislation.”

The decision means Tennessee will take a breath as it seeks to fix its broken testing system, which has been snakebit from the outset. In 2016, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen canceled most testing after TNReady’s new online platform collapsed under the weight of statewide testing on newly minted digital devices. The next year, Tennessee reverted to mostly paper-and-pencil tests, but there were scoring and score delivery issues under new vendor Questar.

This week, when the third year of testing launched, McQueen had been more confident under a gradual transition to online testing beginning with high school students. But on Monday, a login issue stopped testing in its tracks. Tuesday was worse, as Questar’s system shut down because of an alleged cyber attack.

“What you heard today is that, until we get testing right, we want to make sure our teachers, students and schools are not impacted,” Smith told Chalkbeat when the dust had settled on Thursday.

“We’re still going to move forward with our accountability system. We’ll still see what the data shows this year. But we want to make sure the data isn’t skewed. We want to make sure it’s reliable.”

News of the pause drew immediate cheers from teacher groups.

“The legislature made sure students, teachers and schools were protected against the failures of TNReady,” said Jim Wrye, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, commending lawmakers for taking “decisive action.”

“We are very pleased legislators ensured that employment or compensation decisions based on the data cannot be used,” added JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

But others warned that systems for holding teachers and schools accountable are key to ensuring an equitable education for all students.

“While we are dismayed that there were issues with the online TNReady tests, we believe that assessments are the clearest way to gauge what students know, and how well schools are serving all students,” said Gini Pupo-Walker of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

“Tennessee has made great progress by raising expectations, creating high standards and implementing TNReady,” Pupo-Walker said, “and it is important to continue to assess students every year on their mastery in the core content areas.”

Correction: April 19, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that both the Senate and the House approved the bill on Friday. A previous version said the Senate had recessed and would vote Monday on the House-approved bill.

Interesting moment

Tennessee civil rights leaders push back at superintendents’ call to pause state testing

PHOTO: Peyton Hoge
Members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition participate in the group's third annual summit in February in Nashville. The group formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty.

A group of civil rights leaders in Tennessee is urging the state to press on with standardized testing — placing them at odds with the superintendents of the state’s two largest and most diverse districts.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph asked Gov. Bill Haslam this week to press pause on TNReady testing to address widespread problems with the assessment.

But the members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty, pushed back on Wednesday. The group argued that a moratorium on testing is not the answer to technical problems that plagued many students this past spring in the state’s transition to computerized exams.

“The quality of the TNReady assessment, which is aligned to our state standards, is not in question … [but test delivery issues] must be fixed,” the coalition said in a page-long statement.

“We urge all of our education leaders and policymakers to press forward, tackling our testing challenges head-on, and rebuilding trust by staying the course and getting it right for every student in Tennessee,” the group wrote.

The statement was signed by 13 education advocates including the leaders of the NAACP’s state conference, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville.

The exchange represented a unique moment between the coalition of civil rights advocates and the black superintendents of schools in Memphis and Nashville. Those districts represent one-fifth of Tennessee’s public school students, and most of the student population in their cities are black or Hispanic.

In their Aug. 3 letter sent on Monday, Hopson and Joseph told Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, that they have “no confidence” in TNReady.

PHOTO: MNPS
Shawn Joseph greets students in Nashville, where he has been director of schools since 2016.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

(Tennessee’s gubernatorial election is set for Nov. 6. Read what the candidates say about testing and other big education issues here.)

Calling for a “do-over” on the state’s testing program, Hopson and Joseph said that three years of missteps and outright failures administering TNReady has tanked public trust to “irretrievably low levels.”

Haslam has not commented about the superintendents’ request but told Chalkbeat last month that he believes TNReady is a good test with delivery issues that need to be fixed.


READ: Here’s the list of everything that went wrong with TNReady this year


The governor also said he believes passionately that Tennessee’s gains on national tests since 2011 stem from state policies grounded in higher academic standards, a test that measures student progress based on those standards, and using the results to hold students, schools, and teachers accountable.

The coalition backed that agenda on Wednesday. “Our Coalition believes that the path forward lies in maintaining a focus on setting high expectations, monitoring student and school performance, and prompting decisive action when they fall and stay behind,” the group said.

The coalition is a nonprofit organization funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, according to a spokeswoman for the group. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also is supported by the Gates and Kellogg foundations. You can read our full list of supporters here.)

Below is the coalition’s full letter, including individuals who are members of the group’s steering committee.

Taking aim

Declaring ‘no confidence’ in TNReady, Memphis and Nashville superintendents call for pause in state testing

The leaders of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are asking outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam to pause state testing indefinitely to let the next administration address a bevy of problems with the assessment.

In a letter sent Monday afternoon, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph wrote that a “do-over” is needed on the TNReady testing program to salvage the confidence of students, parents, and educators.

“After years of repeated implementation failures and missteps by multiple vendors, we believe educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels,” they wrote Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen.

“We are challenged to explain to teachers, parents, and students why they must accept the results of a test that has not been effectively deployed,” they continued.

A spokeswoman for Haslam did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for McQueen said the commissioner had not yet received the letter, which was dated Aug. 3.

The message from the superintendents — whose districts in Memphis and Nashville represent nearly a fifth of the state’s public school students — further elevates testing as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

However, Hopson and Joseph said action is needed before the next administration and General Assembly take office in January.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

That’s unlikely to happen, though. Haslam has fiercely championed having a state assessment that measures student progress based on Tennessee’s new academic standards. He told Chalkbeat last month that he does not want problems with testing to undo state education policies that he believes have led to gains on national tests.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said Tennessee already has a working group on testing that’s composed mostly of educators.

“We’ve engaged educators extensively in the development of TNReady, and for the past several months we had educators from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools serving on our Assessment Task Force to advise our next steps with TNReady,” Gast said in a statement.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s high school in Memphis prepare to take their TNReady geometry test online last spring.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials. But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results be moot for this year for accountability purposes.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online again. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Hopson and Joseph, whose districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding, also want more state money to offset the technology costs related to TNReady.

“Districts including ours spent tens of millions of dollars over the years investing in new technology to prepare for an online assessment that never came to fruition,” they wrote.

“These investments essentially amounted to unfunded mandates by the State, and in the end resulted in largely wasted local taxpayer resources that could have been directed into teacher salaries, professional development, and other critical needs. By the time the State achieves a fully functioning online assessment system, our original investments will have been rendered obsolete …”

Gast said the state has invested an additional $1.5 billion in technology for schools since 2011, including doubling the amount of annual recurring technology funding. She noted that students have used computer tablets purchased for testing for other instructional needs during this time.

You can read the full letter below.