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Some Tennessee students lost their TNReady test answers despite state’s reassurance they wouldn’t

The frequent technical interruptions that marred online testing in Tennessee this year were bad enough for Cathy Palmer, a teacher at Central High School in Memphis. But students losing their test answers — despite the state’s assurance they wouldn’t — was just too much.

She recalled a case of a student who logged in to the second part of her history test April 17 and discovered the first part she completed the previous day was marked as incomplete.

“We were told that if this happened, we should make sure the student was using the same computer, sign in to that particular part, and submit the test. When we did this for her, her entire essay was gone,” Palmer said.

In most cases where tests didn’t submit properly, students were able to log back in later and submit their tests, according to the state. It was inconvenient, but the answers were stored just as the state’s test maker, Questar, said they would be.

But in an unknown number of cases statewide, students lost test answers. Chalkbeat interviewed teachers and administrators from three school districts who said students lost work. Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the test recovery process worked “in the vast majority of cases” but, when asked, did not provide the number of instances where it did not.

“In some cases, Questar’s team needs additional time to recover these tests, and they are still working through those,” she said last week.

The complication raises further questions about how well this year’s online state test, known as TNReady, will show what students know. All high school students were required to take the online version this year, and 59 districts opted to offer it to middle school students. The rest of Tennessee’s third- through-eighth-graders are taking TNReady on paper.

The state’s online system experienced widespread interruptions on at least four days since testing began April 16. There were log-in issues on the first day, a reported cyberattack on the second, and a problem with lists of students taking the test later in the week after the state’s testing company, Questar, updated its software the night before. An issue with a feature that reads test questions aloud for students with disabilities also caused problems for students trying to login and submit their tests.

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, said this has happened “several days” during the testing window, but did not provide specific numbers either.

“We do not have an exact count. In some cases, we are still waiting to see if the recovery process works,” the district said in a statement.

“The recovery process can take a few days, and therefore answers can still appear to be missing even though they are being recovered,” the district said in another statement. “If the recovery process fails for a student, we have been advised to consult with the Tennessee Department of Education on the best way to proceed.”

In Haywood County, two students lost their test answers and their parents decided not to retest them, a decision the superintendent, Joey Hassell, supported.

Students losing their test answers has been an issue throughout the testing window, said Rachel Phillips, a teacher in Sumner County. It happened to three of her students. She said Questar’s helpline has not been able to explain why it happens.

“They say, ‘I don’t know’ a lot of the time. When we push them and say that is unacceptable, they complete a ‘ticket’ and say they will send directions for how to recover the test. Then you follow the directions for recovered individual student’s tests. Or attempt to,” Phillips said. “The students get very frustrated and nervous that all the work they just did on the test is gone.”

Rick Eaton, the testing coordinator for Sumner County, said the district is still compiling the total number of students affected, but that all middle and high schools were impacted “to some extent.”

“Each of those content areas have 3 to 4 subparts to them. If you experience something in one subpart and an irregularity report for a subpart, the entire content area is invalidated,” he said.

Gast, the state spokeswoman, said local school districts have discretion on whether or not the student should retake the test in those instances. Districts can also submit a report for the online issues “if they believe those disruptions impacted students’ ability to show their knowledge of the standards,” which would invalidate the students’ test results.

Palmer said the student who lost her essay was told to retake that part of the test.

“About 10 minutes later, I noticed that tears were falling down her face. I asked if she was OK, and she said she was willing to re-write her essay, but, in her words, ‘I just can’t do it today,’” Palmer said. “It took me about two seconds to make the decision and tell her to log out. She did not need to be tortured like that.”

“Everyone in my school is very frustrated. Teachers feel frantic and confused amidst all of this chaos,” she continued.

State lawmakers passed two bills to mitigate the impact of this year’s test results on student grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability. But state officials are still interpreting what that means for its plan to comply with federal law, which requires test scores in part to fuel decisions about schools.