No easy answers

Cuts in state testing could have unintended consequences

Michigan officials put 21 schools on its list to improve academic performace

Some testing critics have pushed for trimming Colorado’s K-12 tests back to only what’s required by the federal government, but making that move isn’t as simple as it sounds, the State Board of Education was told Wednesday.

While the overall impact wouldn’t be huge, reduction of testing could have ripple effects in the state’s system of rating districts and schools, causing some ratings to rise and other to drop.

For instance, the Boulder Valley schools would rise from “performance” to “distinction,” the highest level of the state accreditations system. But the Littleton schools would drop one level, to “performance.” And the Greeley district would drop one step from “improvement” to “priority improvement,” the second lowest level.

Overall, 11 districts would receive higher ratings and 28 would decline. Ninety-nine schools would get higher ratings while 97 would drop. (See the slides at the bottom of this article for the full list of theoretical district changes, plus information on how ratings for individual schools might shift.)

The conversation was prompted by the release of the 2014 TCAP results, which started a lively SBE discussion on testing at its August meeting (see story). Members asked Department of Education staff to return in September with more information on questions like what would happen if Colorado scaled back its testing system to only what is required by federal law.

Colorado imposes more tests on public school students than are required by federal law, which basically calls for language arts and math tests in 3rd through 8th grade, plus once between 10th and 12th grade. Science tests are required once each in elementary school, middle school and high school.

But Colorado requires additional tests in high school and three social studies tests during a student’s career, plus ACT tests for all high school juniors, school readiness and early literacy assessments or evaluations. (See this CDE document for a full comparison of state and federal requirements.)

Test results are fed into the complicated state calculations of student performance, academic growth, achievement gaps, dropout rates and graduation rates that are used to generate district and school ratings. So changing the test results could lead to ratings changes.

CDE staff used 2013 test results to do a simulation of how use of results from only federal requirements would affect accreditation ratings. (See these slides for CDE’s full presentation to the board.)

The exercise was a theoretical one, partly because the state testing system will change significantly next year, when the new PARCC tests in English language arts and math are given in all schools. And the workings of the accreditation system are due for review in 2016.

“It could look very different under the new CMAS system,” Alyssa Pearson, CDE executive director of accountability and data analysis. (CMAS is the acronym for the new system that is replacing the TCAPs.)

But even a simulation can be sensitive, given the importance district leaders place on their ratings. As a precaution, CDE emailed every superintendent earlier this week, informing them of the exercise and stressing that it was only a simulation.

“This was a simulation … this is not something we’ve said we’re doing,” stressed Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen.

But, he said, it was important to do the exercise because, “It took us a long time to get the system we currently have. … It needs to be a thoughtful discussion about moving pieces to make sure people don’t see unintended consequences.”

Owen also said the department has queried the U.S. Department of Education about another issue of testing concern – whether results from individual district tests could be used to meet federal requirements.

“We did not get the information” in time for Wednesday’s meeting, Owen said, promising to have details of DOE’s response for the board in October.

CDE Director of Assessment Joyce Zurkowski did have one piece of concrete testing news for the board. She said the department has determined it has sufficient funding to allow districts that choose to do so to give next year’s PARCC math tests on paper rather than online. It also will be possible for districts to give third graders both the math and language arts tests on paper if they choose.

Surveys done for the department earlier this year found some concerns about third graders taking online tests, and about online math tests because students in many schools do math work with pencils and paper. (Learn more about those survey results here.)

State board members are split on testing issues, and where they go from here is somewhat unclear. Members Wednesday mentioned possibly including recommendations in the board’s 2015 legislative priorities (which members will begin discussing next month) and making recommendations to the State Standards and Assessments Task Force, an appointed group that is studying the issue and which is supposed to make recommendations to the legislature in January.

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McQueen declares online practice test of TNReady a success

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Tennessee’s computer testing platform held steady Tuesday as thousands of students logged on to test the test that lumbered through fits and starts last spring.

Hours after completing the 40-minute simulation with the help of more than a third of the state’s school districts, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared the practice run a success.

“We saw what we expected to see: a high volume of students are able to be on the testing platform simultaneously, and they are able to log on and submit practice tests in an overlapping way across Tennessee’s two time zones,” McQueen wrote district superintendents in a celebratory email.

McQueen ordered the “verification test” as a precaution to ensure that Questar, the state’s testing company, had fixed the bugs that contributed to widespread technical snafus and disruptions in April.

The spot check also allowed students to gain experience with the online platform and TNReady content.

“Within the next week, the districts that participated will receive a score report for all students that took a practice test to provide some information about students’ performance that can help inform their teachers’ instruction,” McQueen wrote.

The mock test simulated real testing conditions that schools will face this school year, with students on Eastern Time submitting their exams while students on Central Time were logging on.

In all, about 50,000 students across 51 districts participated, far more than the 30,000 high schoolers who will take their exams online after Thanksgiving in this school year’s first round of TNReady testing. Another simulation is planned before April when the vast majority of testing begins both online and with paper materials.

McQueen said her department will gather feedback this week from districts that participated in the simulation.

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Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central Time and 9 a.m. Eastern Time in participating schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some high school students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.


Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018


The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.


Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches


“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”