The Tennessee Department of Education has terminated its contract with the developer of the state’s new standardized test and suspended testing for students in grades 3-8 this school year due to the company’s inability to deliver testing materials, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday.
However, TNReady testing will continue as planned for the state’s high school students, since those materials already have been delivered.
The announcement delivered the fatal blow to a test that has been plagued with problems beginning with a failed online rollout on Feb. 8 and numerous subsequent delivery delays of printed testing materials. The last straw came last week when Measurement Inc. failed to meet its most recent deadline — to deliver materials by April 22 — in time for testing to begin this week.
As of Wednesday morning, all districts still were waiting on some grade 3-8 materials to arrive, with a total of 2 million documents yet to be shipped, according to a statement from the department.
“Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing,” McQueen said. “We’ve exhausted every option in problem solving with this vendor to assist them in getting these tests delivered. Districts have exceeded their responsibility and obligation to wait for grade 3-8 materials, and we will not ask districts to continue waiting on a vendor that has repeatedly failed us.”
Tennessee is the second state this year to suspend its standardized tests due to problems rooted in technical glitches. Alaska canceled its online tests early this month, due to interruptions caused when a construction worker accidentally cut a fiber optic cable thousands of miles away.
Tennessee’s suspension means that many tenets of test-based accountability will be paused for one year — a leap for a state that insisted on using the new test as the basis for teacher evaluations and student grades, even as the U.S. Department of Education offered flexibility for states making the transition to new tests. High school students’ test scores will be the only ones eligible to be used in teacher evaluations, but only if they boost a teacher’s score, and only if teachers choose to include them.
“Challenges with this test vendor have not diverted us from our goals as a state,” McQueen said. “Tennessee has made historic and tremendous growth over the past several years. Higher standards and increased accountability have been a key part of this progress. Our work toward an aligned assessment plays a critical role in ensuring that all students are continuing to meet our high expectations and are making progress on their path to postsecondary and the workforce.”
The Department of Education is working with the Tennessee Office of Procurement to expedite the process to find a new test vendor in time for testing next spring.
Though Measurement Inc. already operated under an abbreviated timeline, with only one year to develop and deliver TNReady, McQueen said she is confident that the next round will be better.
“While certainly you have a short timeline, we believe we will have a good test next year, and we will have a strong vendor relationship,” she said at a news conference in Nashville.
She said that, despite chronic challenges with TNReady, Tennessee has a strong foundation for a good test moving forward.
“We have a good test this year. It’s a better test than we’ve had in Tennessee in the past,” she said, adding that whatever vendor the state uses next will incorporate questions developed by Measurement Inc.
“Next year’s test will be better than this year’s test,” she promised.
Gov. Bill Haslam also took an optimistic view of the situation. “The failure of the testing vendor to deliver the tests and meet its own obligations does not take away from the fact that Tennessee has created our own, higher standards, we have an improved assessment fully aligned with those standards, and we remain committed going forward to measuring student performance fairly and ensuring accountability for those results,” Haslam said in a statement.
In an interview this week with Chalkbeat, Measurement Inc. president Henry Scherich said that McQueen’s decision in February to shift from an online test to a paper-and-pencil version put the testing company in a difficult, and even impossible, situation.
McQueen countered Wednesday that the state’s contract with Measurement Inc. always had provisions for paper tests in the case of technical troubles.
Though the state’s original contract with Measurement Inc. was for $108 million, Tennessee has only paid the Durham, N.C.-based company $1.6 million so far for content.
Public reaction to the state’s announcement erupted quickly, with many TNReady critics feeling vindicated, including Tullahoma City School board member Jessica Fogarty, who created an online petition asking the state to suspend Part II testing before it began. More than 2,000 Tennesseans signed the petition.
Fogarty said the state should have terminated the contract sooner. She also noted that the state’s next testmaker, like Measurement Inc., will have only one year to develop a test — a timeline that she called unrealistic.
“If anything, we should learn from our mistakes from this year … especially knowing our state standards will change for next year,” Fogarty said. “There’s more to be resolved with testing in Tennessee. … There’s still a lot more questions to be answered before we can be confident about the future.”
Others supported the commissioner’s decision.
“I think the pause will be taken as a relief at this point,” said Wayne Miller, director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “With all the accountability that’s centered around the outcome of student assessments, that’s created certainly a less-than-ideal environment.”
Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, expressed disappointment that many third-graders through eighth-graders graders won’t be able to gauge their performance this spring. “Parents and teachers deserve to know how much progress their students have made over the year, and all Tennesseans deserve an annual snapshot of the progress schools and school districts are making,” Woodson said.
District leaders quickly began sharing the news.
State suspending 3-8 TNReady test. Giving districts option to continue testing. SCS WILL NOT continue 3-8 testing this year. More to come.— Dorsey Hopson, II (@dorseyhopson) April 27, 2016
WCS parents and students ALL TnReady Assessments have been suspended until further notice. The district will send more information ASAP.— Dr. Mike Looney (@FCSSuptLooney) April 27, 2016
Educators and policymakers chimed in too:
We broke MIST!— Math Man (@Walker_SDHS) April 27, 2016
We broke PAPER!
We can't be stopped!!!#TNReady
My students and I have been prepping all year for #TNReady. I cannot believe it was cancelled five days before we were gonna take it.— Bern (@bernthefern) April 27, 2016
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.
Chalkbeat staffers Laura Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report.