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.

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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.

What went down

‘There was no cyber attack,’ investigator says of Tennessee’s online testing shutdown

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Questar’s unauthorized change of an online testing tool — not a possible cyber attack, as earlier reported by the company — was responsible for shutting down Tennessee’s computerized exams on their second day this spring, the state’s chief investigator reported Wednesday.

An independent probe determined that “there was no cyber attack,” nor was any student data compromised, when thousands of students could not log onto the online exam known as TNReady on April 17.

Instead, investigators said, Questar was mostly responsible for this year’s testing miscues. The main culprit was a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool designed to let students turn text into speech if they need audible instructions.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson reviewed early findings of his office’s internal review and the external investigation by a company hired by the Education Department during a legislative hearing in Nashville.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told lawmakers that Tennessee is docking Questar about $2.5 million this year out of its $30 million contract because of the online problems that plagued many students and schools during the three-week testing window.

Payments being withheld are punitive, as well as to cover the state’s costs to address the problems, she said, adding that other discounts could follow.

Last week, McQueen announced that the state plans to launch a new search this fall for one or more testing companies to take over TNReady beginning in the 2019-20 school year. She said a track record of successful online testing is a must.

The text-to-speech tool worked fine last fall when a smaller number of high school students tested online. But the state said Questar made a “significant and unauthorized change” to that feature before the launch of spring testing that affects the vast majority of Tennessee students.  

“We now know this decision led to the severity of other issues we experienced during online testing,” the Education Department said in a statement.

House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. Jeremy Faison asked the comptroller to review the state’s contract with Questar, particularly related to reports of a possible cyber attack. Wilson’s office also looked into other technical snafus that disrupted student testing for days, prompting the legislature to pass emergency laws that make this year’s scores inconsequential.

“We believe that the student testing issues occurred primarily because of how Questar set the student assessment system up to work,” said Brent Rumbley, the comptroller’s information systems audit manager.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies during Wednesday’s hearing, where specialists in the state comptroller’s office also testified.

On the second day of exams, Rumbley said, those issues manifested themselves in a suspiciously high volume of internet traffic to the testing platform.

“That’s what led the Department of Education and Questar to believe that there may have been a cyber attack,” he told lawmakers. “This traffic eventually shut the system down.”

Even though Questar upgraded the processing capability of its equipment in response, students and educators continued to report problems logging in, staying online, and submitting tests until Questar turned off the text-to-speech tool beginning May 1.

The comptroller’s office also found that Questar was ill-prepared to handle the fallout from the technical glitches. For instance, the company struggled to manually recover the high number of tests that students couldn’t submit online. And school personnel calling the customer service line experienced wait times as long as 60 minutes, prompting many to just hang up.

New details emerged Wednesday about other testing problems, too.

On April 25, a Questar employee “inadvertently overrode” custom rosters statewide that allowed schools to match students with available testing devices. “As a result, teachers and test coordinators had to scramble to get students the tests they should take,” Rumbley said.

The next day, more problems erupted when an internet cable was severed by a dump truck in a traffic accident in Hawkins County.

“According to the vendor that manages the fiber optic line, 21 districts were without internet from approximately two to four hours,” said Rumbley, adding that neither Questar nor the department could have prevented the outage that day.

Lawmakers will get an expanded look at the Education Department and its testing program in November when Wilson’s office presents the results of a year-long performance audit, along with findings from a massive survey of Tennessee educators about TNReady.

The two-hour hearing gave lawmakers a platform to take jabs at McQueen and her department for their handling of testing.

Rep. Bo Mitchell admonished the Education Department for tweeting on the second day of testing that Questar “may have experienced a deliberate attack” that morning.

“This gets into the public trust and throwing out information to the public from the Department of Education that the failure was a hack … Whose decision was that to put that out into the public domain without any proof?” asked Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville.

McQueen clarified that the department never used the word “hack,” but reported that the testing system was experiencing a “pattern of data that was consistent with a cyber attack.” The description was based on what was known as the time, she said.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, said Questar’s $2.5 million penalty “seems like a smack on the wrist” given the disruption caused by the company’s mistakes.

McQueen responded that the state is withholding almost $11 million invoiced by Questar for online testing as it continues negotiations. She added that the state’s biggest testing expenses stem from printing and transit costs for paper materials used by about half of its students this year. The state is transitioning to computerized testing and has decided to slow the switch for a second time in the wake of this year’s challenges.

Justin P. Wilson

Questar officials told Chalkbeat last week that the company plans to pursue the state’s new contract next year, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh told McQueen that he doesn’t want the Minnesota-based company involved after it completes its current contract.

“I don’t think we can let Questar get in the ballgame again,” said the Ripley Democrat.

The proposal will be competitively bid, said Wilson, adding that Questar’s past performance will be taken into account.

For more on how Tennessee got here, read why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.

Splitting duties

Tennessee lawmakers OK shifting $12.5 million in TNReady testing work from Questar to ETS

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee State Capitol

Tennessee is banking that two companies are better than one when it comes to fixing the state’s troubled standardized testing program.

The legislature’s fiscal review committee gave its blessing Wednesday to hiring New Jersey-based ETS for some chores previously handled by Minnesota-based Questar.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the shift will allow Questar to focus on delivering and scoring the state’s TNReady tests in math and English language arts — tasks that the company has struggled with the last two years.

It also will consolidate all of the state’s test design work with one company since ETS, also known as Educational Testing Service, already develops the questions, instructions, and materials for Tennessee’s social studies and science exams.

Beginning July 1, the change will add up to $12.5 million to ETS’ existing $25 million contract with the state Department of Education that runs through September of 2020.

State officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost for Tennessee’s $30 million annual contract with Questar, whose oversight of online testing this spring was plagued by interruptions from a string of technical problems.

McQueen told lawmakers that both companies have done solid work creating test questions and aligning them with Tennessee’s new academic standards — but that ETS has managed that task better.

“They have a much longer history in test development and design,” she said. “They do all our teacher licensure exams. They work across many states. … We’ve had positive interactions with them.”

Splitting the TNReady work among two companies marks a departure for the state Department of Education.

Tennessee has used one testing company at a time since launching the new test in 2016. The first was North Carolina-based Measurement Inc., which McQueen fired over online failures that led to the cancellation of most exams that first year. The state then hired Questar to take over and, except for some scoring problems, TNReady went better in 2017. But this school year, Questar had significant challenges with computerized exams as the state returned to online testing statewide for its older students.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, which has had a string of problems since its 2016 rollout.

“Testing, we’re learning, is very complex in terms of the number of things that one company is expected to do,” McQueen said.

Beyond creating the questions, testing companies provide Tennessee’s online and paper tests, score the answers, analyze the results to make sure they’re reliable, and report the data.

“We know that certain companies do some pieces much better than others,” McQueen said.

Questar’s contract ends in November but, even with this year’s problems, likely will be extended through next spring since the company will oversee testing this fall for high school students on nontraditional block schedules. Earlier this month, Gov. Bill Haslam said switching companies in the middle of a school year would present a “practical problem.”

McQueen and her staff faced stern questions about the ETS contract before gaining approval of the fiscal review committee. Among members’ concerns: the cost of testing services, whether the change will smooth out testing next year, and ETS’ purchase of Questar last year. (For details on that deal, read TNReady’s new testing company also owns the old one.)

“They are separate companies,” McQueen said of Questar becoming a subsidiary of ETS. “They have separate contracting, separate contract management, separate CEOS. We were working with ETS before we got in a relationship with Questar.”