State officials are hedging their bets on next year's TNReady testing.
The Department of Education announced Thursday that they'll be limiting online exams in the middle-school grades to just one subject — science — as part of a new plan to keep closer tabs on how computerized testing is going.
"This is the direction Tennessee will continue to move," Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said at a press conference, "but we want to make sure we're phasing in online, based on successful proof points, to help get us to the next stage."
This past year, all high school students took TNReady tests online, but whether a middle school student took a TNReady test online depended on which school they went to. As a result, only about one in three students in grades 6 through 8 sat down at a computer for even one of the four subject exams. The rate was still lower in grade 5.
But next year, every student in those grades will take the science exam online. That means that — even though math, English and social studies will still be on paper — the number of middle schoolers who experience online testing will actually go up.
McQueen says that's a good way to keep the ball rolling on computer tests, which education officials say will inevitably replace pencil-and-paper exams, while also limiting the damage if something goes awry.
Education officials chose the science exam because next year the results won't count against students' grades or teachers' evaluations. That's because the state is rolling out new science standards, and the first year of testing is used to establish a baseline of results.
Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, agrees with the approach. He says pencil-and-paper testing is not as practical as online exams.
"You're looking at a superintendent or director of schools that spent almost two decades unloading boxes, hurting my back, dealing with worker comp claims, dealing with many issues when you're looking at testing a large number of students," he said. "So online testing is the way to go."
Meanwhile, state officials will also be soliciting new bids to administer the TNReady exam. The contract for the current vendor, Questar, is up after next year.
The state plans to issue a request for proposals in the fall, with a firm selected next spring. That should be in time for them to begin work during the 2019-2020 school year.