TNReady Testimony

Few answers as state education officials testify about testing breakdown

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennessee Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns confers with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen on Wednesday before appearing before a state Senate hearing about TNReady.

Lawmakers who tried to shed light on the murky reasons for Tennessee’s botched transition to online testing generated more questions than answers on Wednesday.

Members of the Senate education and government operations committees pressed State Department of Education officials on what went wrong with the state’s brand new testing system, and why they had been confident in a testing company that had never before undertaken a project of that scale.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said her department had done everything it could to prepare for testing, including administering millions of student practice tests and taking “painstaking efforts” to fix bugs reported by students and teachers.

But when testing began on Feb. 8, the testing system crashed while thousands of students were mid-test. Education officials quickly blamed Measurement Inc, the North Carolina vendor hired to develop the test, but have not explained what caused the system to fail.

“Who had oversight over this?” asked Sen. Mike Bell. “Were we just trusting the vendor to get it done?”

(While the hearing was underway, Gov. Bill Haslam announced in an email that test scores would not factor into teachers’ ratings this year because of the testing snafus.)

Department officials said they worked closely with Measurement Inc. throughout the development process, alerting its representatives of technological problems they saw and helping the company test how many students could log on to its system without crashing.

But the problem that crippled servers on Day One of the testing was not due to overload or any bug they’d seen before, said Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer for the department.

“The system was not under tremendous load when it fell over,” Lloyd said. “Unfortunately, what we saw wasn’t a consequence of load. The system was running at about 15 percent of its expected load. What we saw were a combination of factors that could have been avoided, and that is probably the saddest aspect of this.

“We didn’t see a server blow up; we didn’t see insufficient money spent on server capacity; we didn’t see problems with broadband in our schools; we didn’t see all the things you would’ve thought would have been the problem,” Lloyd continued. “What we saw were some bad choices … that really could have been avoided.”

"What we saw were bad choices ... that really could have been avoided."Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer

Lloyd did not specific what those choices were. But he signaled that he did not believe anyone at the state department had made them. “That talks really to the internal processes of another organization that we really don’t have control over,” he said.

Measurement Inc. won the contract with the state in 2014 after receiving the highest technical score from an anonymous group of evaluators, and offering to create the test for the lowest cost — about $20 million less than the next lowest offer.

The company had never taken on a statewide online assessment contract before. But Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of policy, said the State Department of Education had no reason to doubt that the company was up for the job.

“We went through a very extensive (selection) process … and it was really an unprecedented process,”  Smith said. “We had leaders from local districts on the content side and the technical side. … At the time, we felt very positive about the selection.”

McQueen, who became commissioner months after the contract was signed, suggested during the hearing that the department’s confidence had been quickly shaken — and then restored.

“There was a bit of a concern there early on about the capacity for them to understand what the issues were and for them to fix them quickly,” she told senators.

So the state worked with Measurement Inc. to do several “stress tests,” ensuring that the company’s servers would not be overwhelmed by the high volume of traffic when students began testing. They also worked to fix bugs that caused the program to freeze during practice tests.

“We were as ready as we could be for Monday, Feb. 8,” McQueen said.

That is little consolation for students and school personnel who were flummoxed when exams started last week. Now, schools that prepared to take the test in early February are waiting for the arrival of paper tests that have yet to be printed — which are actually more expensive for the state to administer. Smith said officials are working to ensure that the state won’t be left with a larger-than-anticipated bill.

In the meantime, students and teachers alike are confused, said Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis. He said his fifth-grade son had brought up concerns about TNReady and the state’s response at the dinner table.

“This is the first time my son has taken an interest with what’s going on the state level because he’s prepared, and his classmates have prepared, with a great deal of effort, for this test. So he wonders what’s going on, and he brings that to the dinner table,” Harris said.

“Assure your son, he will take TNReady,” McQueen said. “He will get the paper version of the test, and he will be taking it.”

“Can you tell him when?” Harris countered.

Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns said officials hope that Shelby County students will take the test in mid-March before spring break — a month after they originally planned.

Top teacher

Franklin educator is Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: TDOE
Melissa Miller leads her students in a learning game at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin Special School District in Williamson County. Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

A first-grade teacher in Franklin is Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year.

Melissa Miller

Melissa Miller, who works at Franklin Elementary School, received the 2018-19 honor for excellence in the classroom Thursday evening during a banquet in Nashville.

A teacher for 19 years, she is National Board Certified, serves as a team leader and mentor at her school, and trains her colleagues on curriculum and technology in Franklin’s city school district in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. She will represent Tennessee in national competition and serve on several working groups with the state education department.

Miller was one of nine finalists statewide for the award, which has been presented to a Tennessee public school teacher most every year since 1960 as a way to promote respect and appreciation for the profession. The finalists were chosen based on scoring from a panel of educators; three regional winners were narrowed down following interviews.

In addition to Miller, who also won in Middle Tennessee, the state recognized Lori Farley, a media specialist at North City Elementary School in Athens City Schools, in East Tennessee. Michael Robinson, a high school social studies teacher at Houston High School in Germantown Municipal School District, was this year’s top teacher in West Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised the finalists for leading their students to impressive academic gains and growth. She noted that “teachers are the single most important factor in improving students’ achievement.”

Last year’s statewide winner was Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville who has since moved to a middle school in the same Franklin district as Miller.

You can learn more about Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year program here.

PSA

Have you thought about teaching? Colorado teachers union sells the profession in new videos

PHOTO: Colorado Education Association

There are a lot of factors contributing to a shortage of teachers in Colorado and around the nation. One of them — with potentially long-term consequences — is that far fewer people are enrolling in or graduating from teacher preparation programs. A recent poll found that more than half of respondents, citing low pay and lack of respect, would not want their children to become teachers.

Earlier this year, one middle school teacher told Chalkbeat the state should invest in public service announcements to promote the profession.

“We could use some resources in Colorado to highlight how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles,” said Mary Hulac, who teaches English in the Greeley-Evans district. “I tell my students every day, this is the best job.

“You learn every day as a teacher. I’m a language arts teacher. When we talk about themes, and I hear a story through another student’s perspective, it’s always exciting and new.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has brought some resources to help get that message out with a series of videos aimed at “up-and-coming professionals deciding on a career.” A spokesman declined to say how much the union was putting into the ad buy.

The theme of the ads is: “Change a life. Change the world.”

“Nowhere but in the education profession can a person have such a profound impact on the lives of students,” association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “We want to show that teaching is a wonderful and noble profession.”

As the union notes, “Opportunities to teach in Colorado are abundant.”

One of the ads features 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year Christina Randle.

“Are you ready to be a positive role model for kids and have a direct impact on the future?” Randle asks.

Another features an education student who was inspired by her own teachers and a 20-year veteran talking about how much she loves her job.

How would you sell the teaching profession to someone considering their career options? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.