Haslam wants Tennessee districts to be able to lease technology to improve TNReady test
Tennessee will make it easier for school districts to access and purchase the technology — such as laptops — necessary to take TNReady tests starting in the 2019-20 school year.
Gov. Bill Haslam announced the change on Wednesday after a statewide listening tour focused on improvements to TNReady, the state’s standardized test for public school students. The technology upgrades are among the items the state is targeting to fix a flawed test administration over the last several years.
Haslam said to reporters on Wednesday that during the listening tour he heard from teachers that they wanted the state to get TNReady testing right.
“My summary from being at all six of these (listening sessions) and from teachers is: ‘Fix this, don’t start over,'” Haslam said to reporters Wednesday morning. “We’ve been through a lot of change in the last 10 years … what I heard from folks is don’t reinvent the wheel. Make this work.”
Haslam also laid out plans that will guide how the state chooses its next testing vendor, with Questar Assessment’s contract extended only through spring 2019. The state’s search for a new testing company allows a “reset” moment on a test that has frustrated the governor.
Feedback from the listening tour will help improve the state’s overall testing experience and serve as a handoff for the next governor.
“By the end of the school year we will know who our testing vendor will be for the 2019-20 year,” he said.
Cheaper technology tools for districts
Haslam’s focus to make technology easier for districts to access follows complaints heard statewide about internet and computer resources available to teachers.
The state will use its Tennessee Student Technology Enrichment Program to identify companies that can provide “high-quality devices,” such as MacBooks or Chromebooks, at competitive rates, according to Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.
“This is about equitable access during the year just to have keyboarding skills,” McQueen said. “More equitable access allows students to better prepare.”
Districts will be able to purchase, finance or lease the equipment, McQueen said.
And under the lease option, districts will be able to rent technology for a period of three years, and the state estimates that could reduce the total cost of ownership by as much as 40 percent.
The search for a new test company
Tennessee is in the process of finding a new vendor after repeated issues with its current test company Questar Assessment.
The state needed to stick with Questar for one more testing cycle due to how hard it would be to transition to a new vendor within several months time.
Haslam said requests for contract proposals will focus closely on the next company’s technology components.
The state will request its new test company partner with Tennessee businesses and universities to create test materials and score tests.
Haslam also wants the new vendor to be able to allow online access to test results as soon as they are available. And he wants to target a test company that can provide optional tests for districts that mirror what is required on TNReady.
Other changes in place
Although TNReady has been plagued with issues, McQueen has put into place fixes she hopes will improve the tests.
Changes this year include practice runs to ensure the test is working correctly, more overall support and resources for educators and improved training on the platform for teachers.
Districts have begun to get test documents back faster and there are fewer parts to the test overall. The state is using less paper on the paper version.
The state also has full-time staff to help districts with any issues that pop up.
Superintendents sound off on Haslam’s plan
Mike Winstead, director of schools for Maryville City Schools and a facilitator for Haslam’s statewide tour, said he was largely encouraged by the changes.
Technology, he said, ranked as a key topic of discussion at all of the tour stops.
Winstead said that it is critical to start by making sure there are an adequate number of devices in each school.
“I think this announcement will certainly help in that regard,” said Winstead.
Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas, however, said the simple bottom line is that schools need a system “that works” to restore confidence in Tennessee standardized test.
“This needs to be the year where everything comes together and works successfully like it’s supposed to,” Thomas said.
Haslam takes matters into his own hands
Haslam announced his listening tour in late August to hear from teachers, parents and students on how to improve the test that is entering its fourth year.
So far, the Tennessee Department of Education and its vendors have been unable to administer TNReady without some sort of issue, which has eroded trust in the exam among teachers, parents and state lawmakers. TNReady has become a frequent theme among the Republican and Democratic nominees for governor.
With the impending gubernatorial election, Haslam has expressed fear that either candidate will halt progress made in the state. The TNReady issue has been one that has weighed on him, he said.
“It’s been one of my biggest frustrations,” Haslam said.
Both Haslam and McQueen have said they are committed to moving the state fully to online testing.
But getting there hasn’t been easy.
The first year of the state’s test in spring 2016, Measurement Inc., the state’s first vendor, failed to deliver online testing. The company then was only able to deliver paper tests to high school students during the state’s testing window.
In its second year, after the state switched to Questar, a small number of tests were graded incorrectly and test scores were returned to districts late.
And in the 2017-18 school year, widespread issues stemming from Questar making an unauthorized change caused a slowdown in online testing for high school students.The issue was first reported as a possible “deliberate attack” to Questar’s systems.[Read more at The Tennessean]