An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.
“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.
The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.
But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.
“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.
There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.
“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.
Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.
“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”
About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.
Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.
The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.
TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.
While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.
“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”