Tennessee Deal with Questar Means Less Mandated Testing

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Tennessee is eliminating the first portion of spring standardized testing to establish only one assessment instrument at the end of the academic year — and the expectation is that testing time will be reduced by approximately 30% for both teachers and students.

The changes are possible because of the Tennessee Department of Education's two-year, $60 million contract finalized with Questar Assessment, a Minnesota-based company.

The change means that students in grades 3 through 8 will be spending around three-and-a-half fewer hours on state-mandated assessments every year. In high school, students will also see a cut in time taking tests, reports Jason Gonzales for The Tennessean.

"This keeps flexibility for schools, but also maximizes instructional time," said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to reporters on Thursday. "And it will have a positive impact for school climate."

The commissioner applauded Questar for assisting in eliminating the first section of spring exams.

"It is a blessing that we found a partner that wants what we wanted, but also was able to match the feedback we were getting throughout the state," McQueen said.

But there were some questions concerning the testing, such as how the vendor would meet the requirements of a new law that state testing materials must be released to parents and educators. Another was how the online assessments would be improved after issues arose during the 2015-2016 school year.

McQueen answered by saying the state will be able to deliver as many test items as they are allowed and Questar will work with the state to provide an online option for high school end-of-year assessments if early proof of successful online administration is demonstrated.

Tennessee has been researching new test vendors since April when the contract with testing company Measurement, Inc. was canceled. Measurement had numerous problems in fulfilling its contract, including issues that resulted in the cancellation of online tests in the 2015-2016 academic year.

This past spring, tests were canceled altogether for grades 3 through 8, which is one reason McQueen is giving the public as much information as possible regarding the structure and timeline of next year's tests, according to Grace Tatter, reporting for ChalkBeat. McQueen hopes the 2016-2017 exams will change "the tone around assessment" in the state. She said during a conference call with district officials, news media, and Questar CEO Jamie Candee that:

"… we want to be responsive to the feedback we hear … We continue to apologize for last year's experience. Our goal is to make this positive experience."

Fall testing for high school students begins November 28, which caused Candee to voice concerns over the short amount of time her company has to deliver the assessments.

Teachers have had a long wait for "blueprints" that characterize what will be on each exam so they can plan their school year's lessons. The summaries will, however, be available next week. Students will be allowed to take practice tests online starting in November.

McQueen, 40, is a former classroom teacher and has been a professor at Lipscomb University's College of Education in Nashville.

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