Tennessee lawmakers strike deal ensuring students, teachers won't be penalized by TNReady problems

Bipartisan coalition of House members use $37.5 billion budget to negotiate exception to test results

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - State lawmakers forced through a deal Thursday to hold Tennessee students, teachers and schools harmless on TNReady tests this year after problems with the state's online assessment system.

The move came after a bipartisan coalition of House members played the highest-stake bargaining chip in Tennessee history.

They refused to pass the state's $37.5 billion annual budget until their demands were met.

With Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and Senate GOP leaders anxious to get the state's annual spending plan passed, the ploy worked with the budget getting passed.

But not before the House and Senate first approved the separate bill that says the state's TNReady student assessment tests will not be used to measure the performance of students, teachers and schools if they serve to lower their scores.

That ended a days-long uproar that began Monday when the online tests in a number of school districts crashed or locked up. State education officials and testing contractor Questar Assessment blamed the problems on a "deliberate attack" on the company's online site by hackers.

It affected five other states, as well. But House Republican majority and Democratic minority members railed against the state and the company. On Tuesday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville called on Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to resign.

She didn't do so, but she did talk to angry lawmakers Wednesday in an effort to explain what had happened and calm the waters. She was only partly successful. With a new rash of problems reported in some districts on Thursday, representatives were on the warpath yet again. Eyes turned to the state budget, the only constitutionally mandated bill the General Assembly must pass.

"I think we need to hold the budget hostage," argued Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dredsden.

What officials are describing as a cyber attack on Questar's systems affected five other states the company contracts with to manage online testing. Some Tennessee lawmakers demanded districts be allowed to use paper tests.

Hurried negotiations went well into Thursday before a House and Senate conference committee hammered out an agreement on a previously passed bill related to ACT testing. Leaders met with Haslam, who assented.

The TNReady protection provisions were inserted and passed by both chambers. And soon after, the House took up the budget and passed it by an overwhelming margin.

In explaining how TNReady testing would be handled this year, Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, the House's chief negotiator on the issue, told colleagues local school boards can choose to let the TNReady assessment count between zero and 15 percent for students' final grades for this year's final grade.

Smith said student-growth data from this year's assessment "shall not be used to assign a letter grade to a school."

Another section says none of the TNReady assessments administered this year shall be used to define a school as a "priority school" or to assign a school to the state's Achievement School District, where troubled schools are placed.

But if the data comes back as beneficial to a school already on the priority school list, the school can use it to get off the list.

A final section says that local school systems shall not base employment, termination and compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by the statewide assessments administered this year.

In response to questions, Smith said teachers can opt to use the data if it proves beneficial to them.

Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, praised lawmakers for addressing problems faces by students, teachers and school districts.

"Lawmakers were hearing from their districts. They were hearing from teachers, from parents, from administrators that there were tremendous problems with the testing system," Wrye said following the TNReady fix bill. "It was starting to spiral out of control for student morale and a variety of things.

"The validity of the entire testing system was coming under question," Wrye added. "What we asked legislators to do was to hold schools, teachers and students harmless. That's what we got out of the conference committee report today, and we're very pleased."

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