Nolan Elementary fifth-graders develop 14-page report on how to fix TNReady tests

Tess Pope, center, raises her hand May 24, 2016 in her Nolan Elementary classroom about TNReady project that they researched and sent to Governor Bill Haslam.
Tess Pope, center, raises her hand May 24, 2016 in her Nolan Elementary classroom about TNReady project that they researched and sent to Governor Bill Haslam.

As the Tennessee Department of Education works to find a new standardized testing vendor for the upcoming school year, a group of fifth-graders at Nolan Elementary are encouraging the state to rethink it's approach to standardized testing.

Ever since the rocky roll-out of TNReady began to affect them directly this spring, the students in Lisa Hope's fifth-grade advanced classroom at Nolan have been taking notes.

"We knew we would have to take that test soon," student Christopher Romero said. "I thought there were many things wrong with it."

So Romero and his fifth-grade classmates began working to critically analyze standardized testing - specifically TNReady - and over the semester developed a 14-page report attempting to persuade the state to change it's mind about the assessment.

The students spent months interviewing teachers and friends. They scoured the internet for facts and statistics about TNReady, researching both sides of the testing argument. The kids ran calculations, made a video, and compiled it all into the report and a slideshow.

As they began working on the project, the online administration of TNReady failed in February, forcing schools to revert to paper and pencil tests like years prior. Printing paper tests caused numerous testing delays for students across the state, and eventually in April, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen canceled the entire second portion of the two-part test for grades 3-8.

Soon after the announcement, the students at Nolan completed the project and mailed it to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, hoping it will influence the state as it contemplates changes in testing for this upcoming year. The students' report points out that much time and taxpayer money is spent on standardized testing. They say that time can be used better on hands-on learning projects.

"We wanted to help make changes about something we're passionate about," Romero said. "And we learned how to unite to persuade someone."

On the last day of school Tuesday, Hope stood in her classroom and called the class' project a success. She said what her students accomplished through working on the project was what good, hands-on learning looks like.

Hope said the project sharpened many skills in her students like teamwork, organization, planning, respect, critical thinking and speaking up for change. And many of the state's academic standards were also embedded in the project as students applied lessons in math, government and writing to a real-world scenario, she said.

"These kids have so much inside of them and so much to say," Hope said. "I just facilitated as they worked through the process.

Hope gave a gentle laugh as she said the hardest part of the project for her was keeping her opinions to herself because she wanted the work and direction to be completely student-driven.

Hope and her class are still waiting for a response from the governor, and the students are eager to see if testing will be scaled back next year in Tennessee.

Cambria Ginther, a student who helped work on the project, said she sees the benefit of some testing.

"It shows what we've learned," she said.

Ginther's classmate, Mason Howell, agreed testing can be useful.

"It gets students ready to take tests later on like the ACT," he said.

But Romero said he wants less instructional time taken up with test prep and for the standardized tests to be more reflective of what he learns in the classroom.

"With TNReady you're not getting the real us and our real knowledge," he said. "You're getting a stressed-out us."

The Tennessee Department of Education has been increasingly apologetic to educators and students this year as the problems with testing snowballed. Even before canceling testing, the state announced TNReady data will not be used this year for school, teacher or student accountability.

High school students across the state were able to complete both parts of the test, and their scores will be made available this fall, along with other accountability metrics like graduation rates, ACT and growth scores.

But in grades 3-8, only limited information from part one of the test will be released publicly, according to Tennessee Department of Education Spokeswoman Ashley Ball.

The State Board of Education voted Friday to accept the department's request to remove the state's testing and accountability policy this year, which requires standardized test data be used to evaluate school's achievement and district ranking.

But despite setbacks, officials at the Tennessee Department of Education say testing is moving in the right direction.

"The work that has gone into our test transition supports goals that we believe are the right ones in Tennessee," Ball said in an email to the Times Free Press.

This inaugural year for TNReady was the fist step in an ongoing transition to a new type of assessment that measures critical thinking and problem solving skills, she said, and capable of providing more real-time feedback about academic progress to students, parents and educators.

The state is looking for a testing vendor equipped to implement this type of test. McQueen announced in April the state was ending it's $108 million contract with Measurement Inc., the company that designed TNReady and who the state blamed for it's failed implementation this year.

Since severing the contract with Measurement Inc., the state approved an $18.5 million contract for Pearson to score this year's completed TNReady assessments. Pearson previously administered the state's standardized test, TCAP, from 2003-2014.

Not many companies have developed online tests like what Tennessee wants and across the nation states have experienced hurdles when switching to online testing.

In Georgia, glitches were experienced this year during the administration of the state's new online Georgia Milestone assessment.

Most of the results from the Georgia Milestone test can still be used for accountability this year. But because of a few small-scale connectivity issues including slow Wi-Fi, problems logging onto the computer and students losing work after being kicked off the system, the State Board of Education waived the use of these scores in decisions to promote and retain students in third, fifth and eighth grades this year.

"This action was taken in an abundance of caution given some school districts reported technology related interruptions with online testing," said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

Providing districts and schools with student test scores has been delayed this year in Georgia, but Cardoza said this is because the new test requires students to write responses that take longer to evaluate. Score reports for students are expected to arrive to school districts in July, he said.

"We are committed to working to shorten the time frame and getting scores back to districts as quickly as possible while ensuring Georgia continues to have an assessment that beyond just multiple-choice questions," Cardoza said.

And in Tennessee, Ball said the state remains committed to moving toward online testing, but it has not decided if it will attempt to test online again this upcoming year.

"While this transition year has not been without its challenges, we are grateful to the leadership of districts, schools and teachers," Ball said.

Over the summer, the students at Nolan Elementary who worked on this project said they may think about standardized testing some, but they also have lots of other things to keep them busy.

Nicholas Barrett, one of the fifth-grade students who worked on the project, remains optimistic the state will improve standardized testing in years to come.

"Maybe testing will be better for us when we are in seventh or eighth grade," he said. "That would be nice."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at 423-757-6593 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

TNReady Timeline:

August 2015: The school board is first told specifics about TNReadySeptember 2015: Education Commissioner Candice McQueen comes to Hamilton County to meet with principals upset about the new assessment.Oct. 1, 2015: Hamilton County schools participate in the state’s trial-run of the online testing platform.November 2015: High schools on block schedules take the first portion of TNReady online, and principals speak out against the amount of increased testing time.Feb. 6, 2016: More than 100 families in Hamilton County tell school officials they plan to opt their children out of TNReady.Feb. 8, 2016: Spring testing is scheduled to begin online, but the online testing platform experiences significant glitches forcing the state to delay testing and return to paper-and-pencil assessments.Feb. 10, 2016: Hamilton County’s Principal Association drafts a letter asking that TNReady results not be used in evaluations.Feb. 17, 2016: Gov. Bill Haslam announces that TNReady scores do not have to be used in teachers’ evaluations, and the Hamilton County school board passes a resolution not to include the scores.March 4, 2016: Hamilton County school officials delay testing because TNReady paper-and-pencil tests did not arrive on time.March 10, 2016 : TNReady paper and pencil tests arrive in Hamilton County.March 14, 2016: Hamilton County schools start administering the paper-and-pencil TNReady assessment.April 22: Tennessee Department of Education announces it will not reschedule part-two testing if the paper-and-pencil tests do not arrive on time.April 27: McQueen announces that part-two of TNReady for grades 3-8 is canceled. High school students continued to take part-two of the test. McQueen also ends contract with Measurement Inc.May 17: State selects new vendor, Pearson, to score TNReady assessments this year.Source: Times Free Press archives