One Tennessee lawmaker praised education officials for being decisive and ditching — within just a few hours — computer-based testing for the year. But at a hearing Wednesday, legislators also tried to understand how the switch to online exams went so wrong so quickly.
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had been optimistic about the transition, despite repeated system failures during a few trial runs. When 45,000 students started taking their tests last Monday morning, she says many just sat and watched what she calls “the spinning wheel of death.”
The technical problem had to do with the more than 200 versions of different tests being stored deep on certain servers. The test questions, and the accompanying video or audio file in some cases, would get hung up on the trip to the student's computer.
“It's important to understand, the system wasn’t under tremendous load when it fell over,” Chief Technology Officer Cliff Lloyd told state senators.
That's what alarmed the Department of Education the most — that it wasn't as simple as an overloaded server or a bandwidth problem. Lloyd said the system was running at just 15 percent capacity.
The first-day crash, after a string of unrelated server problems, was "the straw that broke the camel’s back,” McQueen said.
“All Tennessee students deserve a positive testing experience every time they log in, not one that is slow to load or fails periodically due to too many users or poor judgment on the part of the vendor,” she said.
Asked if she plans to cancel the $108 million contract with Measurement Inc. of Durham, North Carolina, McQueen said the department is considering its options. But primarily, she is focused on getting paper tests printed and shipped and getting the testing company to foot the bill.
Measurement Inc. president Henry Scherich flew in for the hearing but was told time ran out before he got a chance to speak.
"I was here, prepared and interested in responding," Scherich told WPLN. "Not trying to pick a fight or anything, just wanting to let everyone know we're working with the state and believe our system is pretty robust and it will work."
Measurement Inc. has worked with larger states, like Michigan and New Jersey. But Scherich said the company had never designed such a large online testing platform. He also notes that of the 23 states that have moved to online exams, 16 had at least a few glitches, though almost none of them abandoned computer-based testing as a result.
“We thought we were going to be perfect, but the slowdown occurred — and it was a slowdown. It was not a breakdown," Scherich said. "All those tests were being pulled in, and they were slower getting there than we thought they were going to be.”
Haslam Wants To Hold Teachers Harmless For This Year’s Results
Standardized tests likely won’t count against Tennessee teachers this year.
On Wednesday, Governor Bill Haslam proposed excluding this year’s results from evaluation scores, which many teachers had been calling for anyway.
McQueen says she understands why teachers were concerned.
“This is a transition for all of us, and we know that this is a moment in time where we have had some additional complexity with the online platform," she said. "We need to honor that our teachers have worked with us, our districts have worked with us.”
Under the proposal, which will almost certainly be approved by the legislature, a teacher would get to count the scores if it would help their three-year average.
The Tennessee Education Association praised the move. But the teachers union also pledged to continue fighting any use of standardized test scores when evaluating teachers, calling the figures “too unreliable.”