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State committee grills education commissioner, testing vendor over TNReady blunders

Zach Vance • Dec 12, 2017 at 11:49 PM

Instead of evaluating the performance of students and teachers, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Questar CEO Stephen Lazer were the ones being assessed Tuesday for their roles in the TNReady statewide testing fiasco.

And under most standards, it wasn’t a passing grade.

After summoning McQueen and the executive of the testing vendor company to the House Government Operations Committee hearing, Chairman Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, raised concerns about the overall implementation of TNReady, considering its many issues over the past three years.

“If the Department of Education was up for evaluation, along with QuestStar, there are things that you all would get threes, fours and fives on. But, I would say you'd get a one on some things, too,” Faison said.

“We've put an immense amount of pressure on my educators, and when I share with you what I think you'd get a one on, I'm speaking for the people of East Tennessee, the 11th House District, from what I'm hearing from 99.9 percent of my educators, my principal and my school superintendents.”

Rather frankly, Faison said both the state Department of Education and Questar should receive a one for its communication with local school districts regarding the standardized tests.

Faison said it was “embarrassing” that an email he sent to education officials on Nov. 1 did not receive a response until Monday, the night before the hearing.

Another critique directed specifically at the education department, Faison told McQueen her department should receive a one for not demanding Questar “correctly, quickly and efficiently” release its test answers and data.

Last year, a software issue limited Questar’s capacity to scan testing materials for the spring semester, and therefore some Tennessee school districts did not receive raw test scores in time to be used in final grades.

During her presentation, McQueen said raw scores from the high school end-of-course TNReady exams would be available Jan. 5, 2017, with detailed score reports being issued on Feb. 12.

TNReady’s troubles date back to its inaugural year in 2015-2016, when testing was canceled altogether for grades 3-8 and the original test vendor, Measurement, Inc., was fired for not properly integrating the test online and failing to distribute enough paper tests across the state.

In October, TNReady’s problems continued mounting as the education department announced the new vendor, Questar, had incorrectly scored about 9,400 TNReady assessments, which affected 70 schools in 33 districts.

At Tuesday’s hearing, McQueen said the 9,400 assessments accounted for less than 1 percent of the 1.9 million total tests, and of those impacted, less than 1,700 changed in performance level due to the error.

Lazer apologized for the error and assured lawmakers that his company would strive for 100 percent accurate scores moving forward.

“We've done everything possible to fix these problems in the short term, and in the longer term, we've taken a thorough reevaluation of the quality plan associated with the program, both to make sure things required in the contract are being done, and frankly, to add steps beyond those required in the contract,” Lazer said.

Citing feedback he’s received from educators across the state, Faison said stress spurred on by the TNReady assessment is damaging teacher morale and requested the Department of Education separate teacher evaluation scores from TNReady until it proves successful.

Following state law, McQueen said TNReady scores have slowly been phased into teacher evaluations, counting 15 percent last year and 20 percent this year. Over 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on observations, McQueen added.

“What we’re doing is driving the teachers crazy. They’re scared to death to teach anything other than get prepared for this test. They’re not even enjoying life right now. They’re not even enjoying teaching because we’ve put so much emphasis on this evaluation,” Faison said.

“So I think you’re going to see movement in the legislature this year to detach the evaluation portion of the TNReady test from the teachers and the students.”

Reached by phone after the hearing, Faison said he plans to file legislation to do just that this upcoming session.

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

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