Tennessee officials, vendor vow no more mistakes on TNReady tests

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has taken heat over the glitches found in some statewide standardized test results.

NASHVILLE - State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and a vendor sought to reassure Tennessee lawmakers Tuesday that a testing problem involving digital scans of 9,400 students' TNReady assessment tests has been fixed and won't happen again.

"While we reported 99 percent of our scoring accurately, that's not good enough," McQueen told a joint meeting of the House Education Instruction & Programs and Education Administration & Planning committees. "We expect - we required - 100 percent, and that's our commitment."

Stephen Lazer, president and CEO of Questar, the testing vendor, said while checks were done, "they didn't catch these mistakes. We know how to do it and we will. Obviously, we fixed everything and are in the process of fixing every other report at our own expense."

He said 99.4 percent of the testing was accurate. The problem occurred due to scans of students' paper test scores into the company's data system.

Earlier in the day, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam downplayed the incident, saying "one error is too many, but it is important to remember this is 9,400 tests out of a million something. And it worked. Before anybody's results were impacted or any student got their results, it was caught."

According to testimony, the mistake was discovered only when educators in one school system sought to get to the bottom of why a high-performing student did poorly on an end-of-course assessment.

While relatively minor, the gaffe has assumed far wider importance in lawmakers' minds due to various problems in 2015 and 2016 on TNReady tests.

Last year, for example, students' ability to take the tests online melted down, and efforts to provide backup exams floundered. That prompted McQueen to boot the original vendor and bring aboard Questar.

Minority Democrats last week demanded the state impose a three-year moratorium on the state using the tests to gauge student, teacher, school and school district progress. Republicans were upset, too.

But McQueen gently reminded committees Tuesday that the state only went into the testing business with a vendor after the General Assembly three years ago forced state officials from proceeding with tests developed under the Common Core consortium.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told McQueen his concern remains "the credibility of the test with students, parents, teachers and for employers."

After concerns were raised by lawmakers last year following 2015 problems, Fitzhugh noted, "we were assured in a public hearing that nothing would happen. And now we have this glitch. It may be small but the credibility of these tests concerns me."

Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, warned McQueen that "our confidence level is very low right now. I feel like we're overtesting."

A retired school principal, Byrd said the data from last year is only coming now, which he said makes him think it's "useless" for teachers hoping to glean clues for how to improve their performance in the current year.

Noting the state spends some $30 million annually on testing, Byrd said testing should be available to school districts, schools and teachers by the end of July. Officials said with high school exams expected to be fully online after this year, results in the future should go out in August.

Speaking earlier in the day with reporters, Haslam said, "I think the one thing that's gotten lost in all this discussion is the process worked. It was during the embargo period before any of the results were sent out to students and their families that this was caught."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.