Bumpy runway

Emails reveal months of missteps leading up to Tennessee’s disastrous online testing debut

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

Tennessee education officials allowed students and teachers to go ahead with a new online testing system that had failed repeatedly in classrooms across the state, according to emails obtained by Chalkbeat.

After local districts spent millions of dollars on new computers, iPads, and upgraded internet service, teachers and students practiced for months taking the tests using MIST, an online testing system run by North Carolina-based test maker Measurement Inc.

They encountered myriad problems: Sometimes, the test questions took three minutes each to load, or wouldn’t load at all. At other times, the test wouldn’t work on iPads. And in some cases, the system even saved the wrong answers.

When students in McMinnville, a town southeast of Nashville, logged on to take their practice tests, they found some questions already filled in — incorrectly — and that they couldn’t change the answers. The unsettling implication: Even if students could take the exam, the scores would not reflect their skills.

“That is a HUGE issue to me,” Warren County High School assistant principal Penny Shockley wrote to Measurement Inc.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with reporters in February about technical problems with the state's new online assessment.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with reporters in February about technical problems with the state’s new online assessment.

The emails contain numerous alarming reports about practice tests gone awry. They also show that miscommunication between officials with the Tennessee Department of Education and Measurement Inc. made it difficult to fix problems in time for launch.

And they suggest that even as problems continued to emerge as the test date neared, state officials either failed to understand or downplayed the widespread nature of the problems to schools. As a result, district leaders who could have chosen to have students take the test on paper instead moved forward with the online system.

The messages span from October until Feb. 10, two days after the online test’s debut and cancellation hours later. Together, they offer a peek into how Tennessee wound up with a worst-case scenario: countless hours wasted by teachers and students preparing for tests that could not be taken.

October: ‘Frustration … is definitely peaking’

Leaders with the Education Department, local districts and Measurement Inc. all knew that Tennessee’s transition to online tests wouldn’t be easy. So the test maker and the department developed a plan to identify weaknesses: stress tests they called “Break MIST” to tax and troubleshoot the online system.

They all had a lot riding on a smooth rollout. Tennessee was counting on the scores to assess whether students are measuring up to new and more challenging standards, to evaluate teachers, and to decide which schools to close. Districts, even the most cash-strapped, had invested millions of dollars on new technology. And Measurement Inc., a small company headquartered in Durham, was looking to prove that it belonged in the multibillion-dollar testing industry’s top tier.

The first “Break MIST” day on Oct. 1 was a mess — as expected. Students in the eastern part of the state logged on without issue, but the system stumbled as the majority of students started their tests an hour later.

That morning, emails show that Measurement Inc. received 105 calls reporting problems. The company noted particular problems in districts using iPads. Officials from the testing company assured the state that the bugs could be fixed, and the education department passed the message on to the public.

Department officials said nearly 1.5 million practice tests were completed successfully over the course of the fall. But emails show that even on days that weren’t meant to tax the system, problems emerged.

On Oct. 20, students in some districts were taking practice tests when “everything quit,” according to a state official who summarized complaints that local technology coordinators were swapping by email.

“Not very reassuring,” wrote Randy Damewood, the IT coordinator in Coffee County.

“Not good news,” agreed John Payne, director of technology for Kingsport City Schools, who suggested that his own district’s tests were working that day.

“The frustration among teachers and central office staff is definitely peaking,” wrote Eric Brown, a state official.

But there was more frustration to come, much of it behind the scenes at the Education Department.

December to January: Communication falters

Even after Measurement Inc. and department officials worked together to address problems during practice tests, the department still wasn’t confident in the online system. They weren’t sure whether problems were due to local infrastructure or something bigger. Officials planned two more “Break MIST” days in January to find out.

But they didn’t involve Measurement Inc. in the planning, at least according to company officials who wrote to the department to say they learned of those plans only after being copied on an email sent to local superintendents by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

That message was one of many in which officials with the state or the testing company expressed frustration about communication in the weeks leading up to the testing period.

One tense exchange dealt with the problems faced by students taking practice tests on iPads. “Will the iPad platform be ready for primetime in the spring?” Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns asked Measurement Inc. officials on Dec. 3. “I feel like we need to be honest on this one.”

The test maker did not email a response, and Towns raised the issue again a month later and indicated that she was still waiting for an answer. “I had asked the question very directly in December,” she wrote Measurement Inc. on Jan. 6. “We urgently need an update.”

It took five more days, until Jan. 11, for her to get an answer. A reply from a Measurement Inc. testing expert blamed the problem on Apple but suggested the company had a “workaround.”

The next day, 504 students in Dyer County, about 80 miles north of Memphis, attempted to take the exam, many of them using iPads. Not one was able to complete the test because questions took too long to load, according to a report from Measurement Inc.’s call center. (Another half-million tests were completed successfully during January, according to department officials.)

Henry Scherich
Henry Scherich

In an interview this week, McQueen told Chalkbeat that Measurement Inc. never fixed the iPad problem and that state officials called Apple themselves looking for a solution. She was still looking for an answer on Jan. 21, when she tried to speak directly with Measurement Inc. President Harry Scherich.

“She is wondering if there is any way for you to find even 15 minutes today for a call,” McQueen’s chief of staff wrote. “Commissioner will make herself available. We need to speak to someone who would be able to make a decision concerning technology in an effort to get communication to directors of schools today.”

Scherich, who was in Michigan meeting with that state’s education department, initially said he did not have time to speak with McQueen. (Measurement Inc. is one of two companies producing Michigan’s new exam.) Later that day, he agreed to speak.

McQueenEmail

McQueen said she and her team came to a conclusion the next day: The test wouldn’t work on iPads. They emailed and called districts that had purchased tablets for testing and recommended a switch to paper.

February: A last-minute warning gets too little attention

Even as tensions mounted and glitches piled up, both the department and Measurement Inc. projected confidence about what would happen on Feb. 8, when the test would go live for most Tennessee schools. State officials even invited reporters to Department of Education offices on Feb. 3 to say they were optimistic about the rollout.

But behind the scenes, they were preparing for the worst. McQueen asked the test maker’s call centers to prepare for a major outage, something a Measurement Inc. employee told her was “very unlikely.”

She also emailed districts telling them they should consider switching to paper tests if their students were waiting too long for questions to load. She gave them three days to decide.

Just 15 of Tennessee’s nearly 150 districts took her up on the offer, McQueen told Chalkbeat.

But emails show that the state knew that most districts were having difficulties. When one district’s technology coordinator asked the state for a list of districts ready for the online exam, officials came up short.

“I don’t think I can answer that with any confidence,” the department’s top technology officer wrote.

Five days later, on Monday, Feb. 8, the test officially began. Again, the system handled the first set of test takers but broke down when the rest of the state’s students logged on.

As students stopped being able to connect or saw their tests freeze, emails show that technology directors began frantically contacting each other.

“Has anyone else had MIST drop out on them?” the director from Houston County Schools asked. A chorus of technology directors from other districts replied in the affirmative.

Within hours, Tennessee had ended its foray into online testing. First, McQueen told districts to suspend the exams, then directed them to give up on the online platform altogether.

“We are not confident in the system’s ability to perform consistently,” she wrote in an email to school superintendents that afternoon.

McQueen told Chalkbeat that officials started the day “in good faith,” with an assumption that Measurement Inc. had resolved problems adequately. Scherich told Chalkbeat that he’s still unconvinced that the problems were the company’s fault. He suggested that Tennessee’s decision to cancel testing came too soon.

Either way, the department’s top technology official put it simply when he emailed McQueen on the day of the failure. “It appears that greater procedural and operational rigor could have prevented the network outage,” Cliff Lloyd wrote to McQueen.

The debacle was just what Ravi Gupta, the CEO of a Nashville-based charter school, was worried about when he pressed the state in January for more transparency about the status of the online platform.

“It would be a betrayal of our students’ hard work if adult technical failures stood in the way of their success,” Gupta wrote to McQueen.

In the end, that’s exactly what happened.

Clarification (June 28, 2016): This story has also been revised to clarify the impact of the department’s communications on district testing decisions. It has also been updated to include new information about successful practice tests.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.