All in the family

TNReady’s new testing company also owns the old one

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Stephen Lazer (far right), who formerly worked for Educational Testing Service and is now the CEO of Questar, appears before a Tennessee legislative hearing last fall with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to discuss scoring problems with the state's 2017 TNReady exam under Questar. ETS owns Questar and is now stepping in to oversee TNReady's design, while Questar will continue to administer the exam this fall.

Tennessee’s decision to bring aboard a second testing group to work through headaches with its problem-plagued assessment keeps the job within the same family.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Monday that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over design work for TNReady to allow Questar, the exam’s current overseer, to focus on administering the test.

While McQueen described ETS as a “different vendor,” the group actually owns Questar.

The New Jersey-based nonprofit organization purchased Minnesota-based Questar in 2017 for $127.5 million to serve as its for-profit arm. Questar CEO Stephen Lazer came from ETS, where he was senior vice president over student and teacher assessments.

ETS is a big player in the testing world. The group designs and administers more than 50 million tests per year in 180 countries, and its assessments include the Nation’s Report Card given through the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.

McQueen said ETS has a good track record in Tennessee for creating its social studies and science tests, as well as its teacher certification exams. She said the state has received no complaints about testing directions developed by ETS, while it’s received numerous complaints about directions developed by Questar for TNReady math and language arts assessments.

“They are sophisticated in their content development,” McQueen said of ETS, noting that the group also has a larger staff and management structure than Questar.

State spokeswoman Sara Gast said Tuesday the testing groups “had no relationship at all” when the state Department of Education entered into its first contracts with ETS in 2015 and then with Questar to take over TNReady in 2016.

“ETS acquired Questar last year, but Questar has remained a separate legal entity, and we have two separate contracts and they are two separate companies,” Gast said.

The state plans to amend its contract with ETS to add TNReady design work and is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years. The state fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. in 2016 after TNReady’s failed online rollout prompted McQueen to cancel most TNReady exams that year.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam and his education chief, Candice McQueen, speak with reporters Monday about how Tennessee will handle standardized test results this year because of technical problems administering the exams by computer.

McQueen said this week that Questar fell short in responding to testing problems this spring. And in an interview last week with Chalkbeat, she said several days of outages for the computerized test appear to have stemmed from decisions made by Questar employees who did not consult with the state.

One was caused by an overnight software upgrade in Minnesota that hampered logins for Tennessee high school students on April 25. The other involved a computerized text-to-speech feature for students needing audible instructions. Questar disabled the feature after determining it was preventing students statewide from logging in and submitting their exams on April 30.

McQueen said the state is reviewing the second matter.

We have a belief that Questar potentially made a change from what they did with text-to-speech in the fall to what we experienced in the spring. And that was … not an approved change from the department,” she said. “Our contract is very clear that if any change is made, it has to be approved through the department.”

Questar’s chief operating officer, Brad Baumgartner, did not immediately respond to calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


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


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.