Initial TNReady plan ‘too ambitious’
Tennessee’s education chief described the host of issues with TNReady as her most challenging moments, saying the state was initially too ambitious in its rollout of the online test.
Not being able to deliver a smooth transition to the TNReady assessment test is one of Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s greatest regrets as she leaves her post on Jan. 1.
And as her departure after four years for a national nonprofit draws near, she offered some insight into how the test panned out during her tenure.
She said that frustration from parents and educators around issues with the test delivery was fair.
“And I can guarantee that there was no one in the state who was more frustrated (about the test delivery) than I was,” she said.
When McQueen arrived on the job in 2015, she was tasked with rolling out the TNReady test for the 2015-16 school year. The state was using paper tests before TNReady and was transitioning to an online platform after deciding not to join a national testing consortium.
“The ambition of the TNReady assessment program started very large and stemmed from the legislature’s decision to pull out of a test we had been designing for years with other states and instead take this on ourselves, on a shorter timeline, and move fully online all at once,” McQueen said.
McQueen inherited a testing vendor and plan that she said had never been
tried before in the state.
She said the state was blazing a “path forward with a completely new assessment with completely aligned items, that we weren’t buying or borrowing from other states, that had never been field tested and, as an entire state, that we were going to move entirely online.”
That had implications. The state’s first vendor, Measurement Inc., couldn’t deliver the test online in spring 2016, causing the cancellation of testing in elementary and middle school grades.
High school students were tested on paper.
“That was too ambitious,” McQueen said.
A transition for Questar
McQueen was optimistic of better results when the state moved to a new vendor through an emergency procurement process.
As the state was working through its transition with Questar Assessment Inc., the company was acquired by a larger company. It changed chief executive officers, McQueen said, and the company had a different feel. “It was a turning point,” she said. And there were issues after the spring 2017 paper test administration where Questar incorrectly scored a small number of tests. And the spring 2018 test window brought renewed frustrations.
Questar initially reported a “deliberate attack” on its system. Only later did the company and state officials acknowledge the interruptions were caused by Questar employees making unauthorized changes to the testing system.
McQueen said she had no choice but to move forward because federal and state law requires the delivery of the test or else billions of dollars are at stake.
“When you partner with someone — and through an RFP process — when they come up short you have to take the brunt of the complaints about that,” she said.
3 ‘first years’ of a test
The mounting issues manifested into greater frustration and anger among parents and educators, McQueen said.
“When you are in the moment, you have trouble explaining that in ways that people will hear because people were frustrated. I understand that,” she said. “There was a lack of trust. We were trying to be as transparent as we could even when we didn’t have all the information we needed from the vendor.”
Only months after spring testing did McQueen and the state education department learn the company made a deliberate change that caused functionality issues.
“Almost all of the challenges with spring online test administration stemmed from an unauthorized change made by the vendor between fall and spring testing,” McQueen said. “The contract required this change to get sign-off from the department, but this did not occur.”
For McQueen, she said the test issues have been like administering three “first years” of a test.
Reach Jason Gonzales at jagonza[email protected]nessean.com and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is leaving the state for a nonprofit job. LARRY MCCORMACK /
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, left, talks with Paul Fleming and Laura Encalade. McQueen is leaving the state for a nonprofit job.