Actually Ready

As a few districts around the state push for a pause on TNReady while others look for ways to move beyond the test, the words of a teacher during the testing failure last year seem incredibly relevant:

I want all the things that the Tennessee Department of Education says that it wants from TNReady. But what I do not want is a test that disrupts learning instead of measuring it.

I don’t want to build my students up for a test that doesn’t happen when and how we’ve prepared for it to happen. I do not want to rush my students into a computer lab and be sure they’re all prepared only to sit and wait for 20 minutes to log in, or to end up leaving the lab without testing because the system is down.

I don’t want to start another sentence in my classroom with, “I know we were supposed to test today, but …”

And:

I do not want to hear excuses or listen to anyone insist that these problems do not interfere with the validity of the results. I do not want these results factored into a number used to quantify my effect as a teacher.

But all of that has happened. I also understand that testing is federally mandated, and I agree that tests can provide important feedback. So here’s what I do want: A test that is reliable. A test that is developmentally appropriate in length and respectful of the instructional time students lose to testing. A test that provides timely and detailed data.

And I want my students to take that test, and for my colleagues and I to be held accountable for it, only once it’s actually, truly, ready.

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As Governor Haslam continues his listening tour and the candidates for Governor move forward with their campaigns, the words of our teachers deserve attention.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Meaningless Scores Make Big Splash

The Tennessee Department of Education today released results from this year’s troubled administration of TNReady testing.

This Tennessean story indicates Commissioner McQueen is taking the results seriously in spite of what has become an annual inability to get the job done right:

“We see reason to be encouraged, but we also have a lot of work to do to meet our higher expectations for all students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. “While we’ve focused extensively on early grades reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board. TNReady serves as a vital feedback loop for teachers, parents, and administrators to tell us where we are, and the results inform what steps we need to take to help all students and schools succeed.”

Umm…what?? Are you even serious, Candice? THE TESTS DIDN’T WORK! Also, you were caught lying time and again about WHY they didn’t work.

The legislature passed legislation at the end of session, during testing to account for the failure of TNReady.

This isn’t even the first year the tests didn’t work. It happens EVERY year.

Here’s the deal: These scores can’t credibly be used to tell us ANYTHING. Students in schools all across the state faced disruptions caused by dump trucks and hacking (also known as the ineptitude of DOE leadership). Some kids got the wrong test and the extent of that problem is not totally known.

Note to district leaders: If you use these results to say your district or a given school are “doing well,” you have ZERO credibility. Treating these results as anything other than the complete trash that they are is unacceptable.

Some districts have already begun pushing for change in either how TNReady happens next year or even a totally different type of test.

Oh, and note that the DOE makes it sound like they are making improvements:

The Tennessee Department of Education also announced changes after this year’s problems, including searching for a new vendor. It also adjusted how fast it will phase-in online testing.

That sounds great, but the truth is, the DOE and Governor Haslam are treating Tennesseans like we’re stupid:

Let’s get this straight: Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen think no one in Tennessee understands Google? They are “firing” the company that messed up this year’s testing and hiring a new company that owns the old one and that also has a reputation for messing up statewide testing.

So, we had a testing season full of lies, deception, disruption, and mixed-up tests but we’re supposed to look at the “results” of those tests and take them seriously? No thanks.

 

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One Glaring Exception

That’s how this article in Education Week defines the TNReady testing experience.

It starts like this: Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong with online state testing this year in Tennessee.

Yep.

The piece walks through the saga that has been TNReady. Here are some highlights:

Then, thanks to human error at some schools, about 1,400 students ended up taking the wrong version of the TNReady exam

Except it wasn’t human error at the schools. As I reported on April 26th, the Department of Education said about the issue:

 

“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.

Then, again with the dump truck:

And a rogue dump truck severed one of the state’s main fiber-optic cables, causing temporary connectivity problems during the testing period.

Except not really:

“There is no evidence this was anything other than a side effect of the issue with the fiber cut, but we continue to look into it,” Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said last week.

But internet provider Education Networks of America disputes that, saying that the West Tennessee issues were not related to the cable cut.

What happened in those cases remains a mystery, for now.

Unanticipated?

The article says:

On the second day of testing, Questar was flooded with unanticipated traffic that overwhelmed the company’s servers and prevented some students from connecting to the TNReady testing platform.

How was the testing traffic unanticipated? Was Questar counting on a bunch of students missing school on the second day of testing? Did they not know how many students would be logging on ant the relative times that would happen? They were paid $30 million to figure that out… and didn’t.

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.

 

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.

 

Ultimately, responsibility should rest at the feet of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who so far has avoided any accountability for the ongoing testing mishaps in the state.

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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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A TNReady Letter

An educator in Campbell County sent this letter to legislators about Tennessee’s TNReady trouble:

I am an educator. My husband is an educator as well. We have each been teaching for 17 years and hold master’s degrees in our fields. We are also both history teachers who uphold democratic principles and stress the importance of fulfilling our civic duty.

I am contacting you regarding the issues educators and students are dealing with when it comes to testing and the education system in general. First and foremost, why are we expected to give our kids a standardized test when our students are not standardized kids? We differentiate our instruction every day, we change and adapt to our students needs, we support and scaffold and encourage, but these tests leave no room for that.

As the only social studies teacher in my school at my grade level, I see 165 students a day. I get them for 45 minutes. I teach from the highest high to the lowest low sometimes in the same class period. I have students reading at a 12th grade level with students who literally can spell 2 words due to cognitive delays, yet every kid takes the same test. They may have accommodations such as read aloud or extended time, but someone who is functioning on a third grade level really shouldn’t be expected to take an 8th grade test. That makes that student feel like a failure. No kid should feel like a failure.

I understand the need for assessment, but it should only be used as a measurement tool to gauge growth of the individual students. It should never be used as a weapon to punish the child or the teacher. I don’t like the term accountability because it turns into blame. I promise you that on any given day, you can come into my class and my students are engaged in high order thought processes. We have deep intense discussions about the subject matter, we hold round table talks as historical figures, we participate in congressional hearings where a guest panel fires questions at them, we have simulations, we have csi cases, we examine historical evidence to make a determination, we really dig into history. I teach my butt off. Every day. I love what I do and I am passionate about it, but I am also frustrated because what if I didn’t cover tested material and I look ineffective on paper.

This brings me to my next point. The standards are impossible to truly teach in the timeframe. I don’t believe education comes from doing vocabulary or listening to a teacher lecture. I think true understanding comes from discovery and having the time to explore the topics. In 8th grade, I am responsible for 98 separate standards. There will be a few less in 2020, but right now I have 98 separate standards. Some of those standards only cover one subtopic, but those are few and far between. I put a standard on the board today that included 18 different subtopics. I have counted my subtopics. There are 582 of them. 582 new terms and phrases and concepts. It is impossible to teach all of those well. So I focus on what is most important: Settlement, slavery, conflict, government, native Americans, foreign relations. I would like to invite any legislators to come into our school and sit in our classes and take the 8th grade test that our students, our 13-14 year old children are expected to take. It would prove to be very difficult.

These standards are not age appropriate. I understand why legislators have latched onto the word rigor. It sounds like something is being done. The only thing that has happened is we are setting these kids up for failure. We have jumped on board with this terminology and thrown out the buzzwords, but everyone has lost their common sense. We need to ask ourselves, does an 8th grader, 7th, 6th…etc. really need to know this? Why would someone besides a historian need this? Where are the geography and map reading skills? Why are we trying to push these kids beyond what they are capable of understanding at their age? It’s insanity and it is getting worse with every new change.

The testing debacle has been at the forefront the past few days. TN ready has consistently proven to be not ready. Every year a plague of problems hits the news circuit concerning the system. Why don’t we just let it go? Too much of our tax money has gone into this program. If you ask educators, most will tell you these tests do not accurately measure student growth or achievement. There are too many variables. Why can’t we change the testing structure? It would make sense to test our students on all grade level skills upon entrance in the fall to gain a baseline, test again in the winter to determine growth, and test a final time the last week of school to see what the student did that year. The standards and the tests should be created by current educators. No one knows better than the teachers how to help the students.

Teachers are not lazy. We spend years becoming experts in our fields. We plan lessons, spend money, give our time for free, worry and counsel these kids to make sure they make it. For the majority of us, this isn’t an 8-3 job. From August 1st until June 1st, we are 100% devoted to our schools and our students. Many of us do extra training in the summer to stay current. When we voice concerns, it isn’t because we want our jobs to be easier. It’s because the system is broken, and more times than not we are treated like the villain. We just want professional courtesy.

Please vote to keep tests from counting against our teachers and our students. But do even better. Try to find a solution so our students get the quality of education they deserve. Think what could happen if we funneled some of the millions away from testing and test prep, and sent it directly into the classes. We could hire more teachers and get rid of overcrowding, we could finance field trips so the kids could experience things first hand, we could have materials for science experiments for every kid. Learning could be something kids looked forward to again. It would not be drill and kill test prep.

I get passionate about this subject. Our kids are too important to not get passionate about. I truly want education to be better. I want to see big changes. Get out and talk to teachers. Talk to students. Talk to parents.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

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Not So Harmless

After a fourth day of TNReady trouble, the Tennessee General Assembly took action today to make changes to how the test impacts schools, students, and teachers.

While some are billing the report of a joint committee of the House and Senate as a “hold harmless” for schools, students, and teachers, that’s not entirely accurate.

Also, the legislature stopped short of putting a stop to TNReady entirely, claiming federal law “requires” them to test students.

Here’s the deal: Federal law does say that districts should administer tests to at least 95% of students and that states should test all students in reading and math from grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, with a suggestion for additional high school testing as appropriate.

BUT: Is there really a penalty for districts (or states) where the testing threshold falls below 95%?

As I reported in 2016, the last time we had a major failure of online testing in Tennessee:

There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

In other words, the likelihood of a single Tennessee district losing funds due to stopping a test that isn’t working is very close to zero. Tennessee is not having problems due to opt-outs or a low number of students being tested. Kids in districts across the state are showing up for a test that is not happening. Districts are doing everything right and a vendor and the Tennessee Department of Education are failing to serve students. Unless TNDOE is going to fine districts, there is truly no risk of funds being lost.

Now, about the “hold harmless” law (pictured below):

  1. The law does say that districts and schools will not receive an “A-F” score based on the results of this year’s test. It also says schools can’t be placed on the state’s priority list based on the scores. That’s good news.
  2. The law gives districts the option of not counting this year’s scores in student grades. Some districts had already said they wouldn’t count the test due to the likelihood the scores would arrive late. Now, all districts can take this action if they choose.
  3. The law says any score generated for teachers based on this year’s test cannot be used in employment/compensation decisions.

Here’s what the law didn’t say: There will be NO TVAAS scores for teachers this year based on this data.

Commissioner McQueen said yesterday that the data from these tests will be used to generate a TVAAS score and it will count for 20% of a teacher’s evaluation. This law does NOT change that. It just says if you get a low score based on this number, you can’t be fired or denied compensation.

Below is an excerpt from current law (taken from TCA 49-1-302, the section governing teacher evaluation):

(E)  For teachers with access to individual data representative of student growth as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii), the following provisions shall apply:

  • (i)  In the 2016-2017 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 school year shall account for ten percent (10%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (ii)  In the 2017-2018 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years shall account for twenty percent (20%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (iii)  In the 2018-2019 school year and thereafter, the student growth component of the evaluation criteria shall be determined under subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii);
  • (iv)  The most recent year’s student growth evaluation composite shall account for the full thirty-five percent (35%) of growth data required in a teacher’s evaluation if such use results in a higher evaluation score;
  • (v)  For the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 school years, student growth evaluation composites generated by assessments administered in the 2015-2016 school year shall be excluded from the student growth measure as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) if such exclusion results in a higher evaluation score for the teacher or principal. The qualitative portion of the evaluation shall be increased to account for any necessary reduction to the student growth measure.

Here’s what this means: If the current tests give you a “good” evaluation score, it will count for 35% of your total evaluation. If the score is not “good,” it only counts for 20% this year. The legislation adopted today by way of the Conference Committee does NOT change that.

In other words, the test data from the 2017-18 administration of TNReady WILL count in a teacher’s evaluation.

Here’s why that matters: An educator’s evaluation score factors into the number of observations they have each year as well as Professional Development Points (PDPs). PDPs are needed for license advancement or renewal.

The Department of Education addresses PDPs and notes:

Overall level of effectiveness rating (approved TN model) Overall Score of 5 = 20 PDPs
Overall Score of 4 = 15 PDPs

Overall Score of 3 = 10 PDPs

Information is maintained by the department. No additional documentation is required; points may be accrued annually.

Even if this year’s scores only end up counting 20%, that’s enough to change a teacher’s overall TEAM rating by a level. A TEAM score below a three means no PDPs, for example. The overall TEAM score also impacts the number of observations a teacher has in a year — which also places an additional burden on administrators.

Also, districts now have to meet to decide how to handle the tests and student grades. For some, that decision has already been made. For others, this will require a meeting in pretty short order to let students, parents, and teachers know what’s happening.

Here’s the language of the conference committee report:

 

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We Paid $60 Million for That?

Guess what? Tennessee taxpayers are on the hook for some $60 million to testing vendor Questar for new TNReady tests.

Guess what else? Those tests aren’t exactly helpful.

At least that’s the word from the education professionals in classrooms.

The Tennessean reports this year’s survey of Tennessee teachers indicates:

Sixty-five percent of educators surveyed said standardized exams aren’t worth the investment of time and effort. The same percentage of teachers said the exams don’t help refine teaching practices.

And 60 percent said the test doesn’t help them understand whether students gain the knowledge necessary to meet state standards.

In response, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen notes:

And teachers haven’t yet recieved meaningful data from the change to TNReady to help guide instruction due to the transition, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. The state has and will continue to work to improve the usefulness of the test, she said.

Except the attitude about the previous tests wasn’t much better:

The attitudes toward testing also aren’t necessarily new.

In the 2015 survey, educators said testing was a burden, with teachers reporting they spent too much time preparing students for exams and taking tests.

Now, though, our students spend even more time testing and preparing for tests. Tests that educators don’t find useful. In fact, Chalkbeat notes:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

Why isn’t the testing useful? For one, the results don’t come back in time. Even with the switch to a new testing vendor this year following the debacle of the first year of TNReady, quick score results weren’t back very quickly and final results will be delivered later this year.

It’s worth noting, though, that even before the transition to TNReady, teachers found the testing regime burdensome and unhelpful. It’s almost like the state is surveying teachers but not actually paying attention to the results.

Why are educators frustrated, exactly? Teacher Mike Stein offers this:

Meanwhile, teachers’ performance bonuses and even their jobs are on the line. Though they wouldn’t assert themselves into the discussion, principals and directors of schools also rely heavily upon the state to administer a test that measures what it says it will measure and to provide timely results that can be acted upon. As long as both of these things remain in question, I must question both the importance of TNReady and the competence of those who insist upon any standardized test as a means of determining whether or not educators are doing their jobs.

Taxpayers are spending money on a test that day-to-day practitioners find unhelpful. In the case of evaluations, they also find it unfair. Because, well, it’s just not a valid indicator of teacher performance.

Perhaps state policymakers should take a closer look at the teacher survey results. Teachers have no problem being evaluated, and in fact, most say the current system provides them with useful feedback. The observation rubric is robust and with proper implementation and meaningful building-level support, can be helpful as a means of improving teaching practice.

What’s not especially helpful is a test that takes up significant instructional time and doesn’t yield information in a timely or useful manner.

Taking a step back and removing the high stakes associated with a single test could be an important first step toward right-sizing our state’s approach to student assessment.

 

 

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Still Too Much Testing

That’s the word from Maryville’s Director of Schools Mike Winstead.

Winstead, a member of Commissioner Candice McQueen’s assessment task force, told the group he believed reductions in testing time going into effect this year still create a climate of over-testing.

Winstead made his remarks during a recent meeting of the task force, according to a report by Grace Tatter.

Here’s what Winstead had to say about the current climate of testing in Tennessee:

“When we look at the states we’re chasing and trying to catch on NAEP and move up the ladder, I’d guess there’s none that test as much as (Tennessee does),” he said. “More tests are not going to help us catch them.”

Winstead said time spent testing has increased dramatically over the last five years, and this year’s reductions just bring the state back to a previous level of over-testing, rather than solving the problem.

It’s interesting that Winstead’s remarks suggest he believes we were testing too much even before implementation of Race to the Top and the Common Core/TNReady transition.

Winstead also has a point. While Tennessee had a good showing on NAEP in 2013, the 2015 results suggest that may have been an anomaly.

When the 2015 NAEP results were released, I compared them to 2013’s results and noted:

Note here that what I suggested then [2013] was an expected result (big gain, followed by holding steady) is exactly what happened in Tennessee this year [2015]. That’s good news — it means we’re not declining. But it also means we can’t really say that 2013 was something special. As I noted last year, Kentucky had a series of big gains in the 1990s and then again in the early 2000s. It wasn’t just a big bump one time. So far, Tennessee has had one banner year (2013) and this year, returned to normal performance.

This gets to Winstead’s point. Does an emphasis on testing make us more competitive with other states? Probably not. The NAEP is administered every other year to a random sample of students. It’s the gold standard in terms of scientific data on student performance. Recent results in Tennessee suggest a move in the right direction and an especially nice bump in 2013. But our results are not unique to states that test as much as we do. And we still trail states that place less emphasis on testing.

I’m going to go a step further than what Winstead explicitly said and surmise that he’d suggest we further reduce testing and focus more time on teaching and learning based on our state’s new, higher standards.

Some policymakers would suggest that won’t give us enough data — but we get reliable data every two years from the NAEP. I understand the desire to test all students every year, and federal policy requires this in some form from grades 3-12. But the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also gives us an opportunity to propose innovative strategies and request a waiver from some requirements.

Tennessee should take advantage of the opportunity provided by ESSA and the current state climate around testing, including the task force, and pursue a new strategy that focuses on student learning rather than student testing.

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One Step Further

On the heels of the announcement from the Tennessee Department of Education that TNReady testing was being suspended for grades 3-8, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney went one step further and suspended end of course testing for high school students in his district.

Here’s the email he sent yesterday:

You are an incredible group of professionals and I am exceedingly proud of your work. This year has been full of surprises and uncertainty as it relates to state assessment and yet you still have prepared students for success. Your work is important and matters. I am proud of you.

Unfortunately, sometimes events happen outside of our direct control. Today the Commissioner of Education announced the suspension of Part II of the TnReady/TCAP Assessment in grades 3-8.

In addition, because of my continued concerns, I am suspending End of Course tests at the high school level.

I truly believe in the importance of measuring student progress. It is, from my perspective, a critical piece of our work. And I look forward to us being able to appropriately assess students as soon as possible.

Mike Looney

 

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Seriously?

Will TNReady testing resume this year? For some students, maybe not.

The President of Measurement, Inc. said yesterday that there was no guarantee his company would make the testing window.

The Memphis Daily News reports:

The president of a North Carolina-based testing company said Monday that he can’t guarantee all students in Tennessee will receive the test on time.

Measurement Inc. president and CEO Henry “Hank” Scherich said his company is working furiously to get the new TNReady materials to students.

“I wish I could promise them,” Scherich said. He added they were doing everything humanly possible to get the tests to the students on time.

All of the students have at least some of the testing materials, he said, but the company has found itself scrambling to print and ship 5 million test booklets for Tennessee.

This follows last week’s  that a Friday deadline would be missed.

That event caused some lawmakers to call for this year’s testing to be cancelled. The Department of Education has still not agreed to that solution.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport