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Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (right) talks with educators during a breakout session at the first testing task force meeting this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (right) talks with educators during a breakout session at the first testing task force meeting this year.

Grace Tatter

After TNReady failure, here’s what Tennessee officials want from their next test maker

WANTED: One test maker with experience in administering statewide assessments, preferably online, and who can deliver the product in a short time frame.

The profile for Tennessee’s next standardized testing vendor was revealed Thursday during the kickoff meeting for Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s second testing task force.

The next vendor will replace Measurement Inc., the small North Carolina-based company fired by the state in April for its failed rollout of the state’s new TNReady assessment.

The State Department of Education hasn’t yet released a request for proposal for its new contract, though the July 1 deadline for having a contract signed and sealed is fast approaching.

Not many companies have developed the kind of tests that Tennessee is in the market for — online assessments with the types of questions that are aligned with the current Common Core State Standards. Even fewer have administered such a test without major glitches. Measurement Inc. had more than 40 years of experience but had never rolled out a statewide assessment program on the scale requested by Tennessee.

The new vendor will face a short timeline. High school students on block schedules are supposed to begin taking the state’s standardized test in November, with the rest of students in grades 3-11 testing next spring.

Asked if vendors have expressed concerns about whether such a test could be delivered quickly enough, Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns said there are test makers who are ready for the challenge.

“Vendors have said they’ve worked on an even tighter timeline,” Towns said.

McQueen added that, like Tennessee, several states have rushed to put together an end-of-year assessment after pulling out of multi-state testing consortia.

“They’ve not only said they can do it, we’ve seen it. That gives us confidence as we move forward,” McQueen said.

Though officials have not committed to an online test next year, they say that’s the long-term plan. School districts across Tennessee spent millions of dollars preparing for online testing this year before the state abruptly reverted to pencil-and-paper assessments after online testing was halted on Feb. 8, the first day of statewide TNReady testing. The company’s chief later said the problem could have been solved with additional servers, but the Department of Education was unwilling to take the risk.

This time around, officials have vowed transparency and collaboration with educators as they embark on a new testing contract. Task force members said that in the last testing transition, concerns expressed at the ground level were ignored.

“In hindsight, if we’d had a little more open conversation, (you) could’ve had more help on this,” said Randy Frazier, director of Weakley County Schools. “We kind of predicted some of this before it even happened.”

In the meantime, the state has approved an $18.5 million contract for Pearson to score this year’s completed TNReady exams. The British-based behemoth applied to create Tennessee’s test in 2014, along with Measurement Inc. and three other companies: CTB/McGraw Hill, Questar Assessment and Vantage.

In addition to talking about TNReady, the task force reviewed progress on last year’s recommendations by the panel, including a testing anxiety reduction toolkit now available through the department, and changes to the structure of next year’s test.