It’s All Been a Pack of Lies

By now, it should come as no surprise that our Commissioner of Education and the department she leads has a troubled relationship with the truth. That said, today’s revelation at a legislative hearing that an alleged hack of the state’s TNReady test didn’t actually happen again raises the question: Why does Candice McQueen still have a job?

Back on April 17th, the day after TNReady failed to work on day one of this year’s testing, the Tennessee Department of Education noted that the Day 2 failures were related to someone hacking the vendor:

At a legislative hearing today, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) indicated there was no evidence of a hack.

Additionally, the Department of Education issued this statement, which notes:

  • It appears, thankfully, that there was not an outside actor who attacked Questar’s data system. No student data was breached.
  • It is now clear that the event that Questar initially thought presented like a denial of service attack on Tuesday, April 17 was not created by an external actor with malicious intent, but, rather, can be traced in large part to the caching issues connected to how text-to-speech was configured by Questar.
  • Questar implemented a significant and unauthorized change to text-to-speech, which had previously operated successfully during the state’s fall administration. We now know this decision led to the severity of other issues we experienced during online testing.
  • Questar continues their internal investigation and is cooperating with additional external audits to make sure we have all of the facts.

Questar’s Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner has provided this statement: “Questar’s internal and external investigations indicate that the source of the anomalous data pattern is believed to be the result of a configuration with the cache server. We have applied a configuration change and believe to have resolved the issue. We will continue to work with our internal technology team and external partners to validate this.”

The text-to-speech feature was also blamed for students receiving the wrong tests.

While at the time, the hacking excuse sounded pretty far-fetched, today’s hearing confirms that the Department advanced a lie offered by the state’s testing vendor. Of course, later on in the testing cycle, a dump truck was blamed for disrupting testing. That excuse was also later proven untrue.

All of this may explain why at least one school district is calling for a significant reduction in TNReady testing next year.

If this year had been the first time our state had faced testing challenges, one might understand (and forgive) the excuse-making. However, this is now the fifth consecutive year of some sort of problem and the fourth year testing administration has been, to say the least, a challenge.

One may recall the saga of Measurement, Inc. The company that hired test graders from Craigslist and was ultimately fired in 2016 after that year’s TNReady test failed.

The bottom line: If TNEdu tells you something about testing, you should question it. The track record shows that to our state’s Department of Education, truth is a relative concept.

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If this is what success looks like…

In a story about the Tennessee Department of Education scaling back the requirements for online testing next year in light of this year’s testing challenges, this caught my attention:

Even with the problems this year, it was one of the most successful online administrations for the state to date. More than 2.5 million TNReady tests were administered this spring, with about 300,000 students taking the test online. Only high school students were required to take the online version this year.

What does the word “success” mean? Because my recollection of this year’s TNReady administration is that it was a debacle.

I’m not the only one. As I noted last week:

While lots of states are moving to online testing, one expert says Tennessee is unique:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

And there’s this helpful explainer:

Why is Tennessee in the unique position of having the worst online testing transition in the country?

The reality is that Tennessee’s online-testing mess has left everyone in a difficult position, said Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization.

“The state has not [made] stability a key priority in their testing vendors,” Aldeman said.

Nevertheless, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen says:

The state will put out a request for contract proposals in the fall, with a new vendor to be identified in the spring. Questar Assessment could again win the contract, but McQueen said who wins the proposal will have to show the ability and history of seamlessly administering an online test.

“We look for a company with a track record of success in administering online testing and who can manage our test well.”

Haven’t we heard that before?

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Definitely Something Wrong

The Texas Tribune reports:

A couple of weeks after Texas penalized its main testing vendor over glitches with thousands of standardized tests, another potential testing mishap is under investigation after more than 100 students in a high-performing Houston-area high school received zeros on their English essays.

Valerie Vogt, chief academic officer at Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, said she was confused this spring when about 157 students at George Ranch High School, which generally performs higher than state average on standardized tests, received zeros on their English 1 and English 2 essays. In the other four high schools in the district, just 10 or fewer students received zeros on the essays.

“There’s definitely something wrong,” she said.

The testing vendor responsible is Educational Testing Services (ETS), which owns Tennessee’s testing vendor, Questar. This is the latest in a series of problems with ETS in Texas:

Last month, the TEA levied a $100,000 penalty against ETS after tens of thousands of Texas students were kicked out of the testing software or encountered connection problems when taking computerized tests in April and May. The agency also announced it would throw out the scores of students who experienced those glitches and reduce their effect on state accountability ratings for schools and districts.

Tennessee’s Department of Education announced recently ETS would be taking over more responsibility for TNReady after Questar’s administration of the testing this year was plagued by hackers and dump trucks.

Of course, ETS is not without a history of test administration problems. Edsurge.com notes:

The changes highlight a possible strategic shift for ETS whose reputation came under fire last year when the nonprofit had to pay $20.7 million dollars in damages and upgrades after multiple testing problems in Texas.

A recent analysis of the transition to online testing in the states indicates it is going well in most places, with Tennessee being the one glaring exception.

So, of course Tennessee hires the parent company of Questar — a company that has experienced consecutive years of testing problems in Texas — to come in and … make things right?

Yep, there’s definitely something wrong.

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Survey Says

Teacher and blogger Mary Holden writes about her experience with TNReady this year as she reflects on a survey sent by the Comptroller.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

Let me see if I can sum up this year’s TNReady experience:

  • Some students couldn’t log on at all because their login information was incorrect.
  • Some students couldn’t log on at all because their laptops were offline and we had to find the IT person to help. Or get another laptop and hope it worked.
  • Some students logged on, started their tests, and then got booted off the testing site in the middle of testing. Then they had trouble logging back on.
  • Some students logged back in after being booted off the site and their progress hadn’t been saved so they had to start all over again.
  • Some students completed their whole test, clicked on the “Submit test” button, and then got booted off the site. Then they couldn’t log back on. Then maybe, hours later, when they were called back, they logged back on the site and then, hopefully, their progress had been saved and they were finally able to submit their test.
  • Some students needed an extra password – a proctor password – to log back in, so we had to find the person who had that.

Through all this frustration and stress with the online testing platform and connectivity issues, students were told to do their best because this test was going to count for 20 percent of their class grade. They were stressed. They were angry. They felt they were being jerked around by the state of Tennessee. And they weren’t wrong. In the middle of the testing window, we learned that scores would not count. And they still had to continue testing! It was unreal.

And that is only what I personally experienced as a test proctor.

Statewide, we had even more ridiculous things happening – the testing platform was hacked (a “deliberate attack” was made on the site)(ummmm…. should we be more worried about this?), the testing site was down, a dump truck may or may not have been involved in a severed cable line – a line that just happened to be responsible for the testing site (for real?), and some students took the wrong test – and I could go on and on and on.

READ MORE>

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WRONG: Another TNReady Story

Today’s TNReady story is a tale of the wrong test.

Reports from multiple districts indicate that students have been given tests for the wrong grade level today, particularly in ELA.

This was reported some last week, as well, with the biggest instance noted in Anderson County.

In an update to parents last week, Williamson County noted this type of testing mix-up had happened there as well.

Even when there’s not a widespread outage, as has happened due to dump trucks and hackers, there are problems with the execution of this test.

As Chalkbeat reports, the problem with yesterday’s test (not blamed on aliens, surprisingly) means the text-to-speech feature is turned off today. That means students requiring this feature will not be able to test:

Districts were told late in the day that the culprit was traced to a feature allowing text to be turned into speech for students needing audible commands.

“The problems presented by this feature impact the system for districts across the state, regardless of how many of your students are using text-to-speech,” said an email to superintendents from the state Department of Education.

No word on when students needing this feature will be able to test.

As I said yesterday, it’s amazing to me that this test has not been stopped. When will our Department of Education put students first?

 

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Enough Already

Today, amid another round of testing problems, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney tweeted:

Testing Update: TnReady testing challenges persist this morning. This has been the worst state testing process I have ever seen and it’s beyond ridiculous! Nevertheless, I am proud of WCS students and teachers for handling this with grace.

We’re now in the third week of the TNReady testing window and we’ve seen problems of some sort on a majority of those days. In fact, last week, Williamson County posted a list of TNReady problems by day:

Monday, April 16: Login problems affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Tuesday, April 17: Login problems affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Wednesday, April 18: WCS suspended testing to give the TDOE time to correct problems.

Thursday, April 19: Login problems affecting approximately 1,000 students.

Friday, April 20: No significant issues reported.

Monday, April 23: No significant issues reported.

Tuesday, April 24: System defaults caused 100+ students to take the wrong grade level test.

Wednesday, April 25: Delays and canceled testing affecting approximately 8,000 students.

Thursday, April 26: System lockout affecting approximately 15,000 students.

Friday, April 27: No significant issues reported.

That’s just one district, and the problems have been reported by a number of districts large and small across the state.

The Department of Education has blamed the problems on mysterious forces such as hackers and dump trucks, but it seems clear testing vendor Questar is not quite prepared for the job Tennessee is paying them $30 million this year to do.

Oh, and sometimes students get the wrong test.

All of this has caused an outcry among students, parents, and teachers. While one legislator says all the “whiners” should just suck it up, the TNReady trouble this year has caused legislators to take matters into their own hands, passing bills on “holding harmless” and “adverse actions” in order to make clear these tests should not negatively impact teachers, students, or schools.

One might recall that before our state’s testing window started, there was a bit of a warning that trouble might be headed our way. Despite the signs of potential trouble, Questar and the TN DOE expressed confidence in TNReady:

State officials said Thursday they are confident the new digital platform will work under heavy traffic, even as their new testing vendor, Questar, had headaches administering computer-based tests in New York on Wednesday. Some students there struggled to log on and submit their exam responses — issues that Questar leaders blamed on a separate company providing the computer infrastructure that hosts the tests.

It seems that confidence was misplaced.

I’ve talked with testing coordinators who tell me districts will be testing all the way up until graduation. I heard today that even when the login and submission problems were “resolved,” some students returned to their computers only to be issued a test for a subject other than the one they had started earlier in the day.

Student answers have been deleted or lost. Because of the legislation passed at the end of legislative session, TNReady will likely not count in many student’s grades. Teachers and administrators report that whether the scores count or not, students have no confidence in the system and no longer take the test seriously.

Even today, as I began seeing reports of issues around the state, I realized that TNReady being down is no longer news, it’s the norm.

Of course, Tennessee has had some sort of problem with testing or test results for five years now, dating back to the last administration of TCAP.

Here’s what else I realized: This test will just keep going. No one will stop it. Governor Haslam has yet to seriously weigh-in and appears to be fully behind Commissioner McQueen despite years of testing failures. While Directors of Schools complain about the ridiculous excuses from DOE and poor execution from Questar, so far, no district has permanently suspended testing.

Representatives from the Department of Education told lawmakers last week that there will be some valid data from this administration of TNReady. They even said it with a straight face.

So, why won’t this stop? Will any district refuse to subject students to further testing in this environment? Who will finally stand up and say “Enough?”

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BREAKING: Another Dump Truck Hits TNReady?!

Tennessee’s failed testing system, TNReady, is experiencing problems yet again. Last week, the Department of Education alleged a dump truck took out the test.

That was the latest in a line of testing challenges during this year’s administration of TNReady.

This morning, eleven systems so far are reporting login and/or submission problems with TNReady. Knox, Putnam, Campbell, Sequatchie, Rutherford,  Robertson, Williamson, Montgomery, Collierville, Sumner, and Cumberland have reported issues with the test today so far.

UPDATE: 9:59 AM — It appears the TNReady problems are widespread across the state. No word yet on what caused today’s outage.

STAY TUNED for more on this story.

 

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Whiners

Rep. Sabi Kumar has a message for students, parents, and teachers about the TNReady problems: Stop whining!

Yes, that’s what the Robertson County State Representative said in an email to an educator. The full email response is pictured below. Here’s the text where he responds directly about the testing issues this year:

I also ask a favor of you.

I ask that you and your colleagues rise to your calling as Educators and use this TN Ready Software Failure, that is being labeled a “Debacle” and a “Spectacular Failure”, as a Teaching Moment for your students.

I ask that you teach your students to treat this as a Bump in the Road and teach them how to handle Software Failures at home, or later, in their work space and in Life!

We do not want a child to learn that if they complain loud enough or cry in response to stress, life will get better. It is more important that they learn how to overcome stress and find solutions to problems in the Software of Life.

We want our students to be Winners Who Overcome Circumstances in Life and not whiners who complain. I do agree that each child has different needs and responses but our goal should be the same.

I admire you and your fellow Educators because you do so much for our children.

There is no successful adult who does not owe gratitude to that special teacher, or teachers, who helped shape us towards success in life.

So, Rep. Kumar ends his letter with kind-sounding words about teachers after suggesting that raising concerns about a testing system that has repeatedly failed students makes them “whiners.”

Kumar speaks of teaching children to find solutions to problems while simultaneously refusing to hold the Tennessee Department of Education accountable. He fails to mention that the voters of Robertson County send him to Nashville to help find solutions. Instead, he allows a multi-million dollar, multi-year testing failure to continue and implores those pointing that out to stop whining.

To students who have had schedules disrupted, test answers erased, and instructional time lost, Mr. Kumar says: stop complaining and don’t cry.

One thing he says is true: So far, in spite of the outcry from teachers, parents, and students, life in schools during TNReady is not getting any better. The testing marches on, the window is extended, the problems continue and those responsible are not held accountable.

Here’s an image of the email sent by Kumar:

Here’s how to contact Rep. Kumar.

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Weird Science

Last week, some parents suggested there was a problem with TNReady tests their children were taking. The students reported questions on material not covered or material not in their standards.

Now, it seems there may be an answer — at least when it comes to Science and Social Studies.

WBIR reports:

Over 900 TNReady Science and Social Studies test given to Anderson County student were from the wrong grade level, according to Director of Schools Tim Parrott.

Here’s the response from the Tennessee Department of Education:

“There was a poorly designed feature of the online testing system that contributed to some users accidentally administering a test to students that was below their grade level, including those at Norris Middle School. We’ve provided guidance to the district staff and the building testing coordinator to invalidate these tests. Students are not required to re-test, and their tests will not be scored. This means they will not count toward an educator’s evaluation nor will they factor into the scores we report for Norris Middle School. They will also not hurt the district’s or school’s participation rate.” – Tennessee Department of Education.

I’d suggest that the entirety of this year’s TNReady test has been a “poorly designed feature” of the Tennessee Department of Education and testing vendor Questar.

I’m interested in learning if this problem has popped up in other districts around the state. If you have something to report on this, email me: andy@tnedreport.com

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What Is Normal?

It’s probably difficult to imagine a normal testing environment given the trouble Tennessee has had this year and in 2016. However, an administrator at a middle school offers some insight into what a “normal” testing schedule looks like:

The schedule includes seven different testing sessions to accommodate the eleven subtests required of middle school students.

With an average time on test of 45 minutes per subtest and an additional 40 minutes for ELA part 1, students are spending 8 hours and 55 minutes online.

Seven testing sessions means seven class transitions to the computer lab at five minutes each, plus at least five minutes to log on and go through directions. That is an additional hour and ten minutes lost teaching time.

So, in total middle school students are spending ten hours and five minutes on an online test that the state now says won’t count.  The school day is seven hours. Therefore, the state has robbed students of a day and a half of potential learning in the name of “testing what they know.”

This is what happens under “normal” circumstances. Of course, now there are the added factors of testing delays, suspension of test administration, and extended testing windows.

How long will the state continue a system that robs students of a day and a half of learning?

 

A couple of interesting comments:

Considering that many schools are only giving one subtest per day…some shools are taking nearly two and a half weeks to complete assessments. Also, if you take into account that a school day (7 hours in most places now) has other things like lunch, related arts, and class changes…instruction time is really in the five hour range. So, at minimum the assessment is taking two complete days of instruction. But even that is not the story. Where I live students in middle school are taking eight days over a three week period(T, W, TR) to complete assessments. Again, one subpart at a time. Due to the amount of time that it takes to set-up the lab or ready paper materials(counting every single item in the test admin room as it leaves, distributing in the classroom, counting every test item as it leaves the classroom, and then counting it again as it reaches the test admin office)…the process is much, much longer. Items that must be counted are state issued rulers, calculators, answer sheets, test booklets, scrap paper. It takes forever. Most schools begin w TNReady to start the day. So, basically it is like running school on a two hour delay snow day. Anyone know how much work gets done on snow delay days or early dismissals? Not much. Sorry for the long post. Now ask teachers how much time is spent on benchmarking and quarterly assessments, basically now testing to prepare for the test. I am willing to suggest that the number of days(not actual hours….just days where the instructional environment is disrupted) where teachers are having to give district, state, and federal assessments(think NAEP) is roughly 25-30 days per school year. Over 12 years, that is 360 days or roughly two years of a child’s instructional time from grades 1-12 where a local/state/federal assessment disrupts some portion of a student’s day. Now imagine how much more our children would learn if we got back all of that time accrued over 12 years that was lost to assessments.

AND:

At the high school where I work, we have testing the in AM and PM spread out over THREE WEEKS. That’s 3 weeks of altered daily schedules, 3 weeks of some but not all students missing a class because of testing, 3 weeks of students coming to my class surprised that we are actually doing work that day (because they are equating test taking time as a time for rest in all classes)(I can’t say I really blame them), and 3 weeks of students wondering when it will be over. Three weeks of this energy-sapping, soul sucking testing nonsense that doesn’t count for anything. Try making teenagers take it seriously. It’s a joke and they know it.

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