The problems with this year’s state assessment test have inspired widespread criticism, especially among Tennessee lawmakers. The 2018 version of TNReady has included an alleged cyberattack, a dump truck backing over a fiber-optic line and would-be test takers staring at blank screens.
But history suggests the problem is partially a result of Tennessee officials' own making. Marta Aldrich, chief statehouse correspondent for the education website Chalkbeat, joined WPLN's Jason Moon Wilkins to discuss the legislative decisions that led to this moment.
Listen to the full interview above, or read the excerpt below.
Can you remind us of why the state adopted TNReady in the first place?
It really reaches back to 2007, when Tennessee got called out by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, both for the rigor of its academic standards and for its honesty in reporting that students were proficient on state tests, when national tests showed them significantly behind their peers. That spurred a massive overhaul of public education, and it included new Common Core academic standards.
Then Tennessee needed a new test to measure how students were doing in learning those standards. It began working with a consortium of states, known as PARCC, to develop common tests. Tennessee and its districts spent a lot of time getting ready for this test, but about six months before the first testing was to begin here in the fall of 2014, Tennessee lawmakers pulled the plug on PARCC amid a political backlash over Common Core. And it really set the state's collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test quickly and find a new company to administer it. … We've been having challenges with testing ever since, including this year.
There were a number of states [in PARCC] who really bought into this but pretty quickly also backed out. Were they also facing that same kind of reaction to Common Core?
Yes. In 2014, Tennessee was one of the 18 states that were part of the consortium. The partnership is now down to four states, as well as Washington, D.C., and some other schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education. The exodus was really due mostly to Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration. But also, in Tennessee, many superintendents were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.
You spoke with some officials from New Mexico who stayed with PARCC for the last four years. What did they have to say about how that's worked out for them?
Well, it wasn't perfect, but compared to what with what Tennessee has gone through it was significantly better. They say that online testing has gone fairly smoothly, and it's also been a money saver for them. I spoke with New Mexico's former secretary of education, and she said that the economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC.
Because of all the issues that TNReady has faced this year, state lawmakers passed a bill that essentially keeps those results from being used to judge students and districts. What are you hearing about how this bill will be implemented?
The state Department of Education has been working feverishly to figure out how to follow the intent of that legislation, but also how to remain compliant with a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA requires that states do annual statewide testing and … that we have accountability systems in place, based on a variety of measures including student achievement. And in Tennessee, TNReady is the way we measure student achievement. So that's another reason that this conversation is so important. We expect the state to come out with guidance on these issues and these questions in the next few days.