Ready for TNReady?

New TNReady test will be harder to ‘game,’ say education officials

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
This school year, Tennessee students are taking a new standardized test featuring open-ended questions, as well as traditional multiple-choice questions. The tests will also be administered online.

Test-taking strategies, such as “when in doubt, guess C,” soon will be obsolete in Tennessee, at least when it comes to the state’s end-of-year standardized assessments.

TNReady, the new math and English assessment for grades 3-11, is designed to go deeper than the bubble sheet tests of the past, and be “harder to game,” officials say, meaning that students won’t as easily get points for guessing.

The test also should convey more information about how well students are prepared for the world outside of school — by asking more questions about real-world scenarios and challenging students more than ever before.

“We’re moving into a better test that will provide us better information about how well our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters recently during sneak peek at some of the questions.

The questions are meant to require more than rote memorization, added Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of data and research.

“We recognize the way we have designed TNReady means this is not a test you can game,” she said.

Designed by North-Carolina-based Measurement Inc., TNReady will include several types of questions. Some questions take advantage of the online format and require students to use drag-and-drop tools. Others ask students to write short paragraphs explaining how they solved a problem. And still others are multiple choice, but allow students to select multiple answers. Altogether, the test not only will require students to remember facts they’ve memorized, and imitate procedures they’ve seen their teachers do, but show that they understand concepts on their own.

Tennessee began its transition to a new kind of test in 2010 when the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, with academic benchmarks that focus more on student understanding than on memorizing a formula or procedure that can get the right answer. The state was supposed to move in 2015 to the PARCC, a Common Core-aligned assessment shared by several states, but the legislature voted in 2014 to stick to its multiple-choice TCAP test while state education leaders searched for a test similar to the PARCC but designed exclusively for Tennessee students. In the meantime, several states have switched to tests aligned to the Common Core or similar standards, which are supposed to take aim at one of the oldest and most potent criticisms of tests: that they force teachers to “teach to the test” and focus unduly on memorizing facts and testing tricks that students promptly forget after completing the test.

“These tests have much more emphasis on student reasoning and depth of knowledge than one has seen in the past,” says Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Education and an adviser in developing similar tests in other states.

However, he notes the challenge of developing questions aimed at deeper learning that also can be graded in a timely manner.

“It’s not down to a science yet,” Briggs explained.

The benefit of multiple-choice tests is that they can be scored almost instantly. The downside is they don’t necessarily give insight into how a student knows the answer. “The challenge is, how do you get at a student’s reasoning with items that aren’t fully open-ended?” Briggs asked.

Ilana Horn, a mathematics education professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, said she recently looked through sample questions posted online for parents by the state Department of Education.

“Some of the questions hit the mark,” Horn said, adding that they required students to think deeply about mathematical concepts. She cited a math question for grades 3-5, requiring students to click on a grid to create a figure with an area of 18 square units. A student couldn’t answer correctly merely by memorizing the formula for area.

“If they learned math procedurally and you asked them what area is, they’d say length times width,” she said. “And when you showed them the figure and said, ‘Where’s the area?’ they would blink at you.”

But she said other questions — like one that asks students to choose the answers that round up to eight — still are too focused on procedure.

“The problem is, when kids memorize an equation just for a test, it doesn’t give them deep understandings of what they’re doing mathematically,” Horn said. “And then they forget.”

Although at least some TNReady questions will do a better job of telling teachers what their students know and how they know it, Horn said tests always will be imperfect measures of student learning and teacher quality because they also convey information about cultural backgrounds and poverty.

For example, even the math portion of TNReady will require more literacy skills than the old TCAP did — and how well a student can read and write depends in large part on what a student is exposed to before ever stepping foot in a classroom.

As for why students will need to be strong readers to do well on a math test, Briggs says the idea of what it means to be ready for college or a career is changing.

“Historically, there’s been an attempt to have as little writing as possible on math assessments. You didn’t want to mix up math and verbal skills,” he said. “But our conception of what it means to be mathematically proficient is changing. You have to communicate what you’re doing.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”