School leaders in Tennessee reported few glitches during the first wave of online testing of the TNReady era, but many are concerned that the transition won’t be so smooth next spring, when significantly more students will log in to take the state’s new standardized test.
About 73,000 end-of-course tests in math and English were completed between Nov. 3 to Nov. 20 by high school students on block schedules, according to Ashley Ball, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
Next spring, that number will jump to 1.5 million during the state’s primary testing window.
“I am concerned, “ said James Hundertmark, director of data services for Oak Ridge Schools, noting glitches during practice tests this fall. “I don’t think you’re going to get students’ best results if there’s a holdup.”
The launch of TNReady marks a pivotal moment of transition for Tennessee public schools as students take online assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards — a big shift from the pencil-and-paper tests of past decades that no longer coordinate with the state’s academic benchmarks, which are also in transition. To prepare for the change, districts have raced against time and limited funding to invest in the devices and networks necessary for online testing.
The State Department of Education held a trial run administering 1.4 million practice tests statewide throughout the fall. And on Oct. 1, they asked as for as many students as possible to log on to the plat form, to determine if the platform could accommodate high levels of traffic. Some district leaders reported that their computers froze during the test, and state officials went to work tweaking the system.
School officials said the practice was helpful, allowing many students to familiarize themselves with MIST, the state’s new online testing platform.
“Students that I spoke with seemed to like using the computers and didn’t report having any difficulty,” said Kathryn Weisinger, a special education teacher for English language learners at DeKalb County High School.
This month’s actual testing produced no reports of large-scale failures, but some hitches.
In Maury County, where high school students are on the block schedule, some technical bugs added additional stress to students, said Tracy Franklin, a math teacher at Columbia Central High School.
Franklin said some students reported their cursors turning into a “gray circle of death” and freezing the screen, especially after trying to use the built-in calculator. Proctors told students to wait 30 seconds to see if the test would fix itself before raising their hands so they could move to a new laptop.
“It was very stressful to the students,” Franklin said. “I don’t care how computer savvy you are. You’re taking a test and your computer freezes up, you freak out.”
Weisinger said her students in DeKalb County used external calculators.
This month, schools on block schedules had three weeks to administer the first part of TNReady, which consists of open-ended math and English questions that take longer to score. Schools also administered the U.S. history test online.
The tests were designed to fit into single class periods to avoid consuming the day’s schedule. In the past, students on block schedules didn’t take their end-of-course exams until the first two weeks of December, and tests often took half the day.
But because most schools have limited computers, logistics were a challenge, especially in some districts.
In Oak Ridge, students didn’t begin testing until the second week of the testing window. But Maury County high schools had to use the entire three weeks in order to get all of its students in front of a computer. Test-takers there used the computer labs and library nearly every day, preventing other students from accessing those resources.
That meant Franklin had fewer days to teach his classes before the end-of-course tests, especially because students had to take practice tests in the days leading up to TNReady. “This has been the most frustrating year of teaching I have ever had,” he said.
Scott Gaines, Maury County’s assistant director for instruction, said the new testing schedule was actually less disruptive than in years past, but that it takes time to break old habits.
“The challenge is for us trying to move away from the idea that school stops while we test,” he said.
In Oak Ridge, the logistical challenges will come in February, when the bulk of Oak Ridge students will take TNReady.
“Getting all of our students on a computer in a month window for multiple tests is going to be difficult. Doable, but difficult,” Hundertmark said.
Ball said the state already is incorporating student feedback from those who took TNReady this month — for instance, the need for a copy-and-paste function.
“TNReady is the biggest assessment change that has happened in Tennessee since the inception of statewide testing in 1983,” Ball said. “It won’t be a first year without some glitches, but we are working daily to prepare.”
Hundertmark said the transition to online testing was inevitable — and would be stressful no matter when it happened.
“At some point you have to go live,” he said.