So far so good? Nearly halfway through, Tennessee state testing remains glitch-free

Tennessee’s school districts are nearly halfway through online testing, and for the first time in three years, no major issues have been reported.

About 200,000 computer-based exams were submitted Tuesday and Wednesday – the heaviest days of state testing so far this spring, according to the state Department of Education. That puts the state about 43 percent of the way through testing season to date. From April 8 to May 3, Tennessee students will take 700,000 online exams and 1.3 million paper tests

This calm is critical to both school districts and state Education Chief Penny Schwinn, who said when hired in January that getting state testing right would be her first priority. And for Tennessee students, this year marks the first time in three years that they have not faced major problems with the state’s annual TNReady assessment, administered under two different vendors.

“It’s not over yet and we have a long way to go,” Schwinn said. “But I will say I’m encouraged by what we’ve seen.”

Because Tennessee has produced multiple years of questionable testing data, this year’s smooth testing is especially important to school leaders, said Megan Quaile, executive director of charter network Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee in Memphis. Quaile said testing has gone well this week at her three high schools and two middle schools.

“Last year, we had students waiting 90 minutes to access their tests after they were kicked off the system,” Quaile said. “We haven’t had a good testing year in years…This data is important in how we make decisions in serving kids.”

Unlike previous years, the only testing issues being reported to the Department of Education’s testing hotline are either due to user error or minor infrastructure issues, like internet connections momentarily going out, said department spokesman Jay Klein.

“Moreover, all issues have been resolved either through over-the-phone guidance or the deployment of physical team members,” Klein said.

Schwinn said she had sent department staff all over the state this week, so if an issue comes up, “someone can be there within minutes.”

Schwinn announced last week that she requested two other companies triple-check the work of Questar, the testing company that gave two straight 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 affect student report cards, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems for at least the 2018-19 school year

The two troubled years came after the state fired its previous testing company, Measurement Inc., in 2016 after it oversaw Tennessee’s failed transition to online testing.

Schwinn said this week that the additional review of Questar’s system gave her confidence going into the heaviest days of testing and that the department has not seen any major issues so far with Questar’s system.

“No matter what, with testing, you’re going to have students who are going to unplug the computer or students who are going to do what kids do,” Schwinn said. “But in terms of the vendor and the systems, we have not seen slowdowns.”

Still, Tennessee could have a new test maker next year. Last week was 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.

Schwinn said the department had received “a number of bids” and planned to select a company and finalize a contract by June. She declined to say how many bids the state received.

Whichever testing company the state chooses likely won’t have to worry about online testing for next year. Gov. Bill Lee announced this month that he wants all public school students to take their state tests on paper next school year as Tennessee transitions to the new company.

Reporter Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report.

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