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New era of state testing launches in some Tennessee high schools

In a pivotal moment of transition for Tennessee public schools, some students began this month to 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.

The first testing window for TNReady began on Nov. 2 and continues until Nov. 20.

High schools that operate on the block schedule — in which classes are organized by semester rather than the entire year — can administer the tests anytime during the testing period, another change from years past when testing dates were rigidly ascribed. Officials with the State Department of Education expect the flexibility to minimize disruption to the school day.

“We hope that when students take TNReady, it’s just like any other day at school,” said spokeswoman Ashley Ball on Tuesday. “We want it to seem seamless.”

TNReady is the state’s new yardstick for measuring student achievement in math and English language arts in grades 3-11.

Because most Tennessee schools are not on the block schedule, the vast majority of Tennessee students will take their first TNReady exams beginning in February.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has warned on numerous occasions that, because TNReady is a new assessment, test scores are likely to dip in its inaugural year. “But we hope that’s a one-year story,” she said last June.

The assessment has been in the works since the state contracted last year with North Carolina-based testing company Measurement Inc. to develop it. Previously, the state intended to join other states adopting the PARCC test, a similar online Common Core-aligned assessment, but backed out after the legislature delayed its implementation planned for the 2014-15 school year.

In addition to being administered online and aligned with the standards used in Tennessee classrooms since 2011, the new assessment includes more open-ended questions aimed at gauging critical thinking skills and alleviating pressure on teachers to “teach to the test.” Officials repeatedly have said that good instruction is the best preparation for TNReady.

Because districts had been preparing for PARCC, they have been investing for years in the technology for online testing. None have opted to administer the test with pen and paper and, in September, the state deemed most districts “online ready.”

Ball said she expected most high school students on block schedules to take the tests in coming weeks and that no technical difficulties had been reported thus far.

“We’re excited for kids to show what they know,” she said.