Online testing

Ready for TNReady? It starts this week. Here’s what you should know

PHOTO: patrisyu at

Beginning this week, Tennessee officially enters a new era of testing as most students in grades 3 to 11 start taking state achievement assessments online instead of with paper and pencil. And for the first time, the questions will be aligned with the current Common Core State Standards for math and English, in place since in Tennessee classrooms since 2012.

Here’s the latest information you need to know about the transition to the test, known as TNReady.

TNReady will be administered in two parts, with the first part counting only 20 percent toward scores.

The testing window for the first part runs between Feb. 8 and March 4, and schools have discretion in choosing their testing days. The first part will be comprised of open-ended, written responses for the English portion and multi-step problems for math. The results will count toward 20 percent of students’ final scores and, because it’s early in the school year, this part should assess students’ mastery of only 60 percent of the standards.

The testing window for the second part runs between April 18 and May 13 and will cover all standards. Question types include multiple-choice, interactive ones in which students drag and drop icons, and “selected response questions” in which students select all answers that apply.

Students taking the test on an iPad are at a disadvantage and have the option of taking paper-and-pencil tests.

Districts across Tennessee have worked diligently to get “online ready” for the testing switch, and most students will take their assessments on Google Chromebooks or computers. Some schools that had planned to use iPads have scrambled in recent weeks, however, after receiving notice that the State Department of Education recommends against using those devices. Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer for the department, said there is a subtle difference. “For example, using a finger stroke was problematic,” he said. “You may have had to do that five times. That’s a disadvantage.”

Lloyd is meeting with Apple representatives to work out the kinks, and the state is giving schools the option of using paper-and-pencil tests. By the end of January, only four districts had requested paper-based tests to replace iPads.

But it shouldn’t matter if students are taking the online version or the paper-and-pencil version.

State officials say paper-based test forms cover the same standards and, like the online tests, have been reviewed for standards alignment, bias and sensitivity, and accessibility. “There is no inherent advantage or disadvantage to a student in terms of taking a paper version of TNReady versus a computer-based version,” said Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research.

State officials say technical proficiency shouldn’t be a factor in scores, although research doesn’t always bear that out.

Towns says that, by this time, all Tennessee students should be familiar with the TNReady platform through practice tests and field tests during the last two years. She cites research that if students are familiar with the device and the platform, their scores won’t be negatively impacted by taking it online.

But other research suggests otherwise. The first time the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) writing test was administered online in 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics tracked the impact on student scores. “Students who had greater access to technology in and out of school, and had teachers that required its use for school assignments, used technology in more powerful ways” and “scored significantly higher on the NAEP writing achievement test,” wrote Doug Levin, then-director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, in a 2014 blog post.

If computers crash and systems fail, there’s a contingency plan.

Last October, some district leaders reported computers freezing when the state conducted a trial run of its new online testing platform. State officials have been tweaking the system and received a few reports of computer glitches in November when high school students on block schedules took TNReady. This month, as the bulk of Tennessee students take the online test, state officials say they are prepared for whatever happens.

“We will do what needs to be done to work through any challenges, be they weather, technical or whatever it is,” Towns said. “The worst that will happen is students will use the paper version.” If computers crash and no paper-based forms are immediately available, districts will have flexibility to administer the test outside of the testing window.

Lloyd said he’s not concerned about major failures such as servers crashing. “Those big things are easy to fix,” he said. “I’m worried about small things that can occur on certain operating systems in certain conditions.” Glitches such as a frozen computer screen wouldn’t impact as many students as a system-wide failure would, but it could impact individual students.

Towns tries to keep it all in perspective as the state, school districts and individual schools embark on this learning curve. Even if there are glitches, she quipped, “there will be no tissue damage.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: