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TNReady is back online, and technical problems are back too

After a day of fits and starts, Tennessee’s return to online testing did not yield the outcome its leaders had sought, with many schools halting tests soon after starting.

But by the end of the school day on Monday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen apologized for problems that began when many students tried unsuccessfully to log on to take their standardized test known as TNReady. Declaring the problem resolved, she told district administrators that “we feel good going into testing tomorrow.”

The episode on TNReady’s opening day renewed mass frustration from educators and parents in a state that is no stranger to online glitches. Two years ago, technical snafus derailed a wholesale switch to testing on digital devices, prompting McQueen to fire the state’s testing company and cancel TNReady for grades 3-8.

This time around, McQueen had ordered a gradual transition to online testing and, just last week, was upbeat about the state’s preparation in behalf of 600,000 students. In all, about half are taking the test on computers, including all high school students and some in middle grades whose districts have opted to go digital.

But as testing began on Monday, screens froze and students could not advance beyond the login page. Technical workers for the state and Questar scrambled to fix the problem only a week after the testing company dealt with similar issues in New York. Several hours later, they pinpointed a conflict in two state testing programs that share a login system.

But it was already too late for many schools to resume testing.

McQueen emphasized that the state’s computer server did not “crash,” nor was there a capacity issue.

The problem was widespread, however, affecting students in at least 20 counties across Tennessee and in large districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Murfreesboro.

“We had some students who logged on successfully and others who could not,” said James Evans, a spokesman for Rutherford County Schools in Murfreesboro.

He said a software patch fixed the problem.  “Any of our students who started the test today will finish the test today. Those who could not log in this morning will pick up tomorrow,” he added.

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Monday was the first day of TNReady’s three-week testing window, including paper-and-pencil tests for the state’s younger students.

TNReady is the state’s annual test to measure what students know and are able to do. It’s important because it serves as the cornerstone of Tennessee’s accountability system, with student growth scores incorporated into teacher evaluations and intervention strategies for low-performing schools.

The assessment also has been a lightning rod. Critics have questioned the validity of the test and complained that the state tests its students too much.  Monday’s headaches didn’t help.

Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story, which has been updated.