Candice McQueen adamantly told state lawmakers Wednesday that she will not step down as Tennessee’s education commissioner over the state’s bungling of standardized tests for a third straight year.
One day after House Democrats called for the embattled leader to resign, McQueen reported that students were testing successfully online on the third day of TNReady. She said the problems of the first two days had been addressed — at least for now.
The commissioner opened a two-hour legislative hearing with an apology to students, parents, and educators for technical problems that stalled testing and affected tens of thousands of students this week.
“We were completely devastated when we heard that districts were again having technical issues yesterday,” she said of issues now being attributed to a “cyber attack” on the data center operated by testing company Questar.
She reported speaking with the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about a possible criminal investigation — but that jurisdictional issues may prevent that since Questar’s data center is located in Minnesota. Immediately, she said, the state will work with Questar to hire an independent investigator.
That plan angered Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, who fired off the opening question that set the tone for most of the day’s dialogue.
“Could you answer the fundamental question why you should not use this hearing to resign right now, based on these consistent failures?” Stewart asked, citing problems that go back to 2016 when Tennessee canceled much of TNReady after the state’s first attempt at online testing collapsed.
“I do not plan to resign,” McQueen responded, adding that she expected to power through the next three weeks of testing with “continued improvement and success.”
At her side was Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Minnesota-based Questar, which is under a $30 million annual contract with Tennessee’s Department of Education that expires this year. He took responsibility for this week’s testing failures.
“I think it’s important for members here to understand that the department did everything that they could to thoughtfully plan for this administration, as did the commissioner,” Baumgartner told lawmakers.
“We own the last couple of days,” he added.
That prompted Stewart to ask McQueen why the company that’s acknowledging mistakes is also spearheading the investigation into them.
“What I heard is that I don’t have any information, but I want to make an excuse for the person who hired us and gave us a bunch of money,” Stewart said. “… Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed.”
McQueen said the state and Questar will consult with the TBI about bringing in a third-party investigator, and she pledged to ask Davidson County’s attorney general to request a TBI probe. (After the hearing, she formally made that request.)
She added that she was open to the idea of suspending accountability measures for one year and holding students, teachers, and schools harmless based on this year’s tests, if that is the will of the legislature. But state lawmakers, who are expected to wind down the 2018 session next week, would have to authorize that change since it’s now part of state law.
In contrast to Stewart, Rep. Mark White came to McQueen’s defense and urged her to dig in her heels.
“Don’t you dare consider resigning,” the Memphis Republican told the commissioner. “The easy thing to do is quit and give up when the going gets tough.”
He recounted how Tennessee was blasted in 2007 for its low academic standards and dishonesty in reporting that its students were doing well on state achievement tests when they were tanking on national tests.
“We were failing our students 10 years ago,” said White, calling the testing problems “hiccups” and hailing the state’s more rigorous standards.
“(Today) we are the fastest-improving state in the nation. We didn’t get there by pushing back and giving up and throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Oh it’s too hard.’”
(Follow Marta W. Aldrich @marta_w_aldrich; email: [email protected].)