Back online

Two years after massive testing snafus, Tennessee will test more students online than ever

PHOTO: PeopleImages/Getty

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.

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.