Are Children Learning

TNReady delay heightens parent concerns, strains lesson plans

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shamaine Walls reviews TNReady practice questions with his niece Angelica Walls and nephew Mario Taylor at a TNReady information event sponsored in Memphis by the Tennessee Education Association.

The relief of having more time to help her son prepare for Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment following a statewide testing delay soon turned into frustration as Shelia Lumpkin looked at the practice questions.

“For some of the parents who came up in the ‘80s, we were not faced with something like this,” said Lumpkin, calling the math and English questions difficult to understand.

Parent Shelia Lumpkin looks at TNReady practice questions.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parent Shelia Lumpkin looks at TNReady practice questions.

The parent of an eighth-grader, Lumpkin was among about 60 Memphis parents gathered Saturday at Oakhaven Middle School to hear how parents can help their students prepare for the rigor.

“You have to do … more than what your parents did for you,” explained Rhonda Thompson, coordinator of instructional advocacy for Tennessee Education Association, which sponsored the event.

Thompson emphasized student attendance — a central tenet of what can make the difference between passing and failing the test. “That’s why they need to be here at school and on task,” she said.

TNReady is Tennessee’s new measuring stick for student achievement and has received unprecedented attention both in Tennessee and across the nation in the wake of a failed rollout of the new online test on Feb. 8. The failure means most students will take the test more than a month late because districts now must revert to paper-and-pencil tests that must be ordered and delivered to schools.

The delay has left teachers such as Ryan Winn scrambling to restructure their lesson plans for the next month.

“We were very intentional about using material that would be directly aligned with what they would be tested. … We planned down to the minute,” said Winn, a seventh-grade math teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School. “Now we have multiple teachers who schedules have been thrown out.”

Fairley High School had developed a month-long schedule to share 150 computers among 575 students for the online test. The shift back to paper-based tests means TNReady will be completed in one week, though on a significantly delayed schedule.

“It’s been living in limbo. It’s just a different ballgame.” said principal Zach Samson of Fairley, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

Emma Karpowicz, a Fairley Algebra II teacher, said the testing changes were a letdown for students, too.

“Having a clear date in mind sets it up for them. The uncertainty is confusing for them,” she said.

The new schedule for TNReady, which is administered in two parts, now means “the kids aren’t going to have as much time after spring break” to learn new material for the second part “and very little review time,” Karpowicz said. Students studying for the ACT are even more impacted as the timelines collide.

Administrators have noted the financial implications, including costs incurred to administer the test online and instructional time to teach keyboard skills. In Shelby County Schools, the price tag is about $5 million, mostly to purchase computers, according to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

But state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the online test will return next year, so technical investments won’t be wasted.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.