Gov. Haslam: Tennessee may not renew contract with student testing vendor Questar

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks on Sept. 20, 2017, during the 76th annual meeting and luncheon of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam said the state is conducting an independent review of its current contractor running the problem-plagued TNReady student testing system and, depending on its findings, the company could be out of the picture once its current contract ends in November.

The governor and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told reporters Monday they intend to abide by the intent of state lawmakers' hastily passed law last month that seeks to prevent students, teachers and schools from being negatively impacted under vendor Questar's continued rollout of online testing this spring.

Among other things, it grants teachers and school systems authority to use the testing data only in cases where there are no negative impacts on students' grades or teachers' effectiveness.

"It's important for all of us that get this right," Haslam said of various steps his administration is taking of the state's latest foul up. "It's important for students and teachers and parents. It's important for us as a state."

McQueen said that in addition to the state's third-party review of Questar's operations, the state is already going to move "all of our test development and design" to Educational Testing Services, which she said has a "reputation for very high quality work."

The firm already provides Tennessee public schools their science and social studies testing.

But the governor and McQueen said Questar likely will be around at least through TNReady's fall testing.

"Technically they could be [out], but they would have to do our fall '18 testing," Haslam said.

Haslam, meanwhile, also issued a plea for Tennesseans and lawmakers to recognize how far the state has come in education in teaching and testing.

"I honestly believe one of the reasons we've made so much progress is because of that," Haslam said. He added that officials have "worked hard to get a test that matched the standards and to have the outcomes of that be part of the [teacher] evaluation. And if we lose the ability to rely on that data it becomes a problem. And not just now but for years to come."

Haslam said a lot of the economic development progress the state has made in luring new companies here or existing ones to expand is based on Tennessee "preparing its students."

The governor also pointed out that Tennessee is one of only 10 states still relying on paper tests instead of online testing. The state has been phasing in the online testing.

"That's not where the world is going, that's where the world is," Haslam said of online testing.

McQueen said that, despite the latest problems, many of the tests went well.

This year's problems arose in part from a cyber attack on Questar's online testing platform. There were also connectivity issues. And the situation wasn't helped when a dump truck chopped a fiber-optics cable, leading to more disruptions in areas.

Problems assumed far wider importance in the minds of students, parents, teachers and lawmakers 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.

And Haslam acknowledged things weren't helped to begin with when state lawmakers forced the administration much earlier to abandon proceeding with the national Common Core consortium and its tests. The state had to start from scratch.

McQueen explained that the state "will be holding our teachers, our students and our schools harmless from any adverse action based on this year's results - while we continue to hold firm and strong to our accountability system."

Districts can decide whether to use this year's TNReady results "if it helps the student, but they cannot use it if it lowers the final grade for any student," McQueen said.

While TNReady is still being used to calculate results for teachers, McQueen said, teachers "will have complete control to nullify their score this year."

The tests won't be used in the A-to-F grading systems for schools, although the numerative data will continue to be shared on the school "dashboards."

And low-performing schools won't have this year's TNReady data used to force them into the state's Achievement School District, the commissioner said.

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