Following three consecutive years of testing problems, Tennessee is trying again.
So far, students have taken about 43,000 state exams online this week.
By Friday, that number is expected to reach 100,000, and about 700,000 by the end of the month. An additional 1.3 million tests will be completed on paper.
“We’re starting much stronger this year than we did last year,” Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told reporters Wednesday.
There is a lot riding on this year’s exams going smoothly. Since 2016, Tennessee students have faced problems with the state’s annual TNReady assessment, administered under two different vendors.
To avoid similar problems this year, Schwinn has established a “control room” for the heaviest days of online testing next week.
“This allows us to see everything that’s happening in real time,” she said. “We have put in place a number of redundancies to get as close to accurate information as possible.”
One of those redundancies is having two other companies triple-check the work of Questar, the testing company that gave two consecutive years of problem-plagued TNReady assessments. Days of testing difficulties last spring led to two emergency legislative orders so that the problematic results wouldn’t impact student report cards, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems for at least the 2018-19 school year.
In 2016, the state fired its previous testing company, Measurement Inc., after it oversaw Tennessee’s failed transition to online testing.
New York, which also uses Questar, experienced online glitches during testing last week – marking the second time New York has had problems during assessment season. New York’s Education Commissioner requested that Microsoft and Educational Testing Service, or ETS, Questar’s parent company, confirm Questar’s diagnosis and how it planned to fix the issues.
Schwinn said she has asked Questar to continue working with Microsoft and ETS during its testing cycle in Tennessee to monitor and identify any potential issues.
“The best way to mitigate problems is to see what’s happening elsewhere before our testing windows starts,” Schwinn said. “New York saw challenges with its platform. We have required Questar to triple-check the functionality of its systems.”
Tennessee’s window for testing was to start officially next Monday, but the education department gave districts the option to test a week early so it wouldn’t interrupt with Easter break plans for some schools.
By the end of the week, Schwinn expects half of the state’s 147 districts to have completed at least some subject-area testing, but individual districts and schools were given discretion on timing.
This week is the state’s deadline to receive bids for a single company to oversee the test both on paper for younger students and online for older ones beginning next school year. Tennessee hopes to finalize the contract with the testing company it selects by June 13.
Whatever testing company the state chooses won’t have to worry about online testing for next year. Gov. Bill Lee announced last week that he wants all public school students to take their state tests on paper next school year as Tennessee transitions to the new company.
“The best course of action for the state next year is to go with paper and pencil testing,” Schwinn said this week. “We’re going to set up online testing for future years.”