Beginning this week, Tennessee officially enters a new era of testing as most students in grades 3 to 11 start taking state achievement assessments online instead of with paper and pencil. And for the first time, the questions will be aligned with the current Common Core State Standards for math and English, in place since in Tennessee classrooms since 2012.
Here’s the latest information you need to know about the transition to the test, known as TNReady.
TNReady will be administered in two parts, with the first part counting only 20 percent toward scores.
The testing window for the first part runs between Feb. 8 and March 4, and schools have discretion in choosing their testing days. The first part will be comprised of open-ended, written responses for the English portion and multi-step problems for math. The results will count toward 20 percent of students’ final scores and, because it’s early in the school year, this part should assess students’ mastery of only 60 percent of the standards.
The testing window for the second part runs between April 18 and May 13 and will cover all standards. Question types include multiple-choice, interactive ones in which students drag and drop icons, and “selected response questions” in which students select all answers that apply.
Students taking the test on an iPad are at a disadvantage and have the option of taking paper-and-pencil tests.
Districts across Tennessee have worked diligently to get “online ready” for the testing switch, and most students will take their assessments on Google Chromebooks or computers. Some schools that had planned to use iPads have scrambled in recent weeks, however, after receiving notice that the State Department of Education recommends against using those devices. Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer for the department, said there is a subtle difference. “For example, using a finger stroke was problematic,” he said. “You may have had to do that five times. That’s a disadvantage.”
Lloyd is meeting with Apple representatives to work out the kinks, and the state is giving schools the option of using paper-and-pencil tests. By the end of January, only four districts had requested paper-based tests to replace iPads.
But it shouldn’t matter if students are taking the online version or the paper-and-pencil version.
State officials say paper-based test forms cover the same standards and, like the online tests, have been reviewed for standards alignment, bias and sensitivity, and accessibility. “There is no inherent advantage or disadvantage to a student in terms of taking a paper version of TNReady versus a computer-based version,” said Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research.
State officials say technical proficiency shouldn’t be a factor in scores, although research doesn’t always bear that out.
Towns says that, by this time, all Tennessee students should be familiar with the TNReady platform through practice tests and field tests during the last two years. She cites research that if students are familiar with the device and the platform, their scores won’t be negatively impacted by taking it online.
But other research suggests otherwise. The first time the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) writing test was administered online in 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics tracked the impact on student scores. “Students who had greater access to technology in and out of school, and had teachers that required its use for school assignments, used technology in more powerful ways” and “scored significantly higher on the NAEP writing achievement test,” wrote Doug Levin, then-director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, in a 2014 blog post.
If computers crash and systems fail, there’s a contingency plan.
Last October, some district leaders reported computers freezing when the state conducted a trial run of its new online testing platform. State officials have been tweaking the system and received a few reports of computer glitches in November when high school students on block schedules took TNReady. This month, as the bulk of Tennessee students take the online test, state officials say they are prepared for whatever happens.
“We will do what needs to be done to work through any challenges, be they weather, technical or whatever it is,” Towns said. “The worst that will happen is students will use the paper version.” If computers crash and no paper-based forms are immediately available, districts will have flexibility to administer the test outside of the testing window.
Lloyd said he’s not concerned about major failures such as servers crashing. “Those big things are easy to fix,” he said. “I’m worried about small things that can occur on certain operating systems in certain conditions.” Glitches such as a frozen computer screen wouldn’t impact as many students as a system-wide failure would, but it could impact individual students.
Towns tries to keep it all in perspective as the state, school districts and individual schools embark on this learning curve. Even if there are glitches, she quipped, “there will be no tissue damage.”