Are Children Learning

New benchmark assessment tool proposed for Memphis students

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

Students in Shelby County may add a new test to their schedule beginning this fall if the district’s Board of Education approves a proposed district-wide benchmark assessment.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez wants students to undergo the new assessment three times this school year to measure their academic progress before having to take the state’s new TNReady exams beginning next spring.

TNReady will be aligned with the state’s current Common Core academic standards, as would the district’s new benchmark assessment wanted by Ramirez. The district’s new “universal screener” would identify students in need of intervention, particularly in reading and math, where 32 percent of district students scored proficient in reading and 40 percent in math this year.

“We have a less-than-perfect assessment portfolio right now,” Ramirez told the Shelby County Board of Education on Tuesday evening. “What we don’t have is a benchmark assessment that would help us monitor schools’ progress during the year so we don’t have to wait until the end of the year to find out if a school is dramatically off course.”

The new assessment was recommended by a district task force convened by Ramirez last winter to research and compare standardized testing options used by other school districts. In June, the task force began searching for a testing vendor.

If the board approves, Ramirez wants the district to purchase the assessment by early September.

“The goal would be to have an assessment in place for administration in September or October of the school year,” Ramirez told the board, adding that the plan is “to administer that three times a year.”

Ramirez said the district is seeking one vendor to provide assessment tools for all students pre-K through 12th grade in an attempt to streamline the process. The assessment likely would be administered online, she said.

TNReady, the state’s new TCAP test for English language arts and math in grades 3-11, also will be administered primarily online. To accommodate the technological transition, Shelby County Schools and other districts across Tennessee are investing in new computers, software and training.

Earlier Tuesday, the board’s legislative committee discussed concerns about over-testing — an issue that is being reviewed by a state testing task force convened last spring by Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“The drums are beating really hard in Nashville as far as whether or not we’re testing our students too much, so we can make sure that our teachers get their bonuses and our schools stay off the priority lists,” board member Kevin Woods told Ramirez. “Quite honestly, this investment bothers me quite a bit.”

Ramirez responded that the new assessment is needed for accountability to inform instruction.

Memphis has the highest concentration of low-performing schools in Tennessee. Both the district and the state have turned the city into a battleground for school improvement.

Once approved, the new benchmark assessment would require three to four weeks of technology preparation for students to take the test, as well as professional development for teachers to familiarize themselves with the new instrument.

See Ramirez’ PowerPoint presentation to the school board here.

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McQueen declares online practice test of TNReady a success

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Tennessee’s computer testing platform held steady Tuesday as thousands of students logged on to test the test that lumbered through fits and starts last spring.

Hours after completing the 40-minute simulation with the help of more than a third of the state’s school districts, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared the practice run a success.

“We saw what we expected to see: a high volume of students are able to be on the testing platform simultaneously, and they are able to log on and submit practice tests in an overlapping way across Tennessee’s two time zones,” McQueen wrote district superintendents in a celebratory email.

McQueen ordered the “verification test” as a precaution to ensure that Questar, the state’s testing company, had fixed the bugs that contributed to widespread technical snafus and disruptions in April.

The spot check also allowed students to gain experience with the online platform and TNReady content.

“Within the next week, the districts that participated will receive a score report for all students that took a practice test to provide some information about students’ performance that can help inform their teachers’ instruction,” McQueen wrote.

The mock test simulated real testing conditions that schools will face this school year, with students on Eastern Time submitting their exams while students on Central Time were logging on.

In all, about 50,000 students across 51 districts participated, far more than the 30,000 high schoolers who will take their exams online after Thanksgiving in this school year’s first round of TNReady testing. Another simulation is planned before April when the vast majority of testing begins both online and with paper materials.

McQueen said her department will gather feedback this week from districts that participated in the simulation.

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Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central Time and 9 a.m. Eastern Time in participating schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some high school students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.

Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018

The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.

Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”