When Tennessee’s new online testing system started having technical issues two weeks ago, the hallway designated for the exams at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s high school in Memphis resembled a lifesize whack-a-mole.
“There were heads popping out of classrooms saying, ‘We can’t submit! We can’t submit!’” recalled testing coordinator and teacher Ellen Clayton.
Some students panicked when they thought their test results were erased or they couldn’t submit their test after multiple attempts.
Ja’Bria Hammond, a ninth-grader, said she was “very anxious” and wondered what would happen if she couldn’t submit her test. That anxiety followed her into her next exam, even though that one went without a hitch.
“I was mostly calm, but it was in the back of my mind,” she said.
The scene is familiar to educators and students across Tennessee who have experienced major blocks to completing the standardized testing. Students around the state have had trouble logging into the online system, staying connected, and submitting their results throughout the three-week testing window. Other students got the wrong tests or struggled with questions that wouldn’t load properly.
And while state education officials assured districts that the problem of the day had been fixed, people inside schools dealing with the fallout have felt like the Tennessee Department of Education was not taking the interruptions seriously.
“It calls into question the validity of the results. Is poor performance on this test a lack of preparation on the teacher’s part, or (because) a student had to wait 90 minutes to start or get interrupted?” said Dylan Moore, a biology teacher at Freedom Preparatory Academy.
“It’s kind of hard to believe the reasons they’re giving as to why there are issues,” he said. “The root of the problem is the system was not prepared.”
Clayton has spent upwards of an hour at a time on hold with the customer service hotline for the state’s test maker, Questar. If another issue popped up in the meantime, she would pass the phone to another teacher or administrator helping with testing.
If the problem looked like it wouldn’t get resolved soon, they would pack up and do a headache-inducing schedule change so that students weren’t just sitting around waiting to test.
“As soon as we put up the computers and change the schedule, we get the all clear from the state,” Clayton said. But like many schools, they waited until the afternoon or next morning to gather students again for testing.
The charter school in Memphis’ Westwood neighborhood can test about 120 students at a time with one computer lab and laptops on carts to take to other classrooms. If the school wanted to truncate testing to one week instead of three, they would need about 350 computers total.
Wednesday was originally the school’s last day of testing, leaving the remaining two days for makeup tests. But when the state attributed connectivity issues in Shelby County to a dump truck that cut an internet cable in East Tennessee, school leaders decided to push their schedule back a day. The state added a few days to the testing window to accommodate such issues.
About 20 students will be taking their tests outside the normal schedule because their tests, for whatever reason, would not load at all or kept kicking them out of the state’s online testing platform.
“It just didn’t let me take my test in general,” said Gabriel Bolanos, a ninth grade student. “I really want to learn and know how to get better. Without taking the test, I don’t know how to get better.”
Moore said the botched rollout likely would have been smoother if there was more field testing of the online system and there were more people helping schools troubleshoot issues sooner. Money for more laptops and computer labs wouldn’t hurt either.
“If the state is committed to online testing, there should be more support in implementing it,” he said.
Still, students at Freedom Preparatory Academy have strived to keep a positive attitude and have even praised some of the features on Questar’s testing system such as the ability to highlight and annotate text on their English exams or block out other lines of text as they are reading a long passage.
Stanley Jones, a ninth grade student, said he had to calm himself and refocus as students around him started discovering problems with their English test.
“I thought everything was going to go great,” he said, pausing to give a heavy sigh. “But things don’t always go your way.”