Tennessee needs to get testing right

Tennessee moved to online standardized testing in 2016. Sort of.

The test started online that year, but crashed on day one. What followed was a series of unfortunate events that ultimately meant state testing wasn't really completed.

Students were prepared by their teachers. Teachers were ready. The new test, TNReady, simply wasn't.

The next year, the state returned to pencil and paper tests for all grades. No technology problems, but there were delays in returning the results to teachers and students.

By delays, I mean the test data came back by late November. That's well into the school year; too late to be of much use to teachers attempting to use the data to inform lesson planning (and) too late to provide useful feedback to parents as to what their children need to improve.

This year, we were all set to go with online testing again - until we weren't. There was alleged hacking. There was a dump truck that supposedly ran over a key internet fiber line. Both of those turned out to be deliberately misleading. There were days when students started and couldn't complete the test. There were students given the wrong test.

The legislature responded by passing a law saying “no adverse action” could be taken against schools, teachers, and schools as a result of the failed tests.

However, it seems the adverse action is actually the testing regime itself. Tennessee students spend hours taking state-mandated tests. Those hours span a period of weeks and mean huge chunks of lost instructional time.

When a test fails over and over again, students stop taking it seriously. When the data is either not returned on time or is the result of a badly botched test administration, teachers are not well-served. Further, parents can't trust the results sent home -- which undermines the entire process.

State testing should ultimately benefit students. It should provide timely, relevant feedback that teachers and parents can use to help improve the education children receive.

Tennessee’s state tests are in crisis. They don't serve their intended purpose. In fact, the hours spent testing -- and the weeks and months spent prepping -- mean valuable time is lost each year.

The good news is Tennessee has a new Governor, lots of new legislators, and starts a new legislative session this month.

Now is the time for Tennessee to right size testing. We should no longer accept a test that costs nearly $100 million and fails year after year.

Our next Commissioner of Education must present a plan that moves us away from a test that does more harm than good. We should explore alternatives that reduce total testing time and even those that move away from testing kids every single year. It is also worth taking a year off of testing altogether in order to spend time developing a plan that actually serves our students well.

Will 2019 be the year we move toward getting testing right in Tennessee? Our kids are counting on it.

Andy Spears is a co-founder of Strong Schools and the publisher of Tennessee Education Report.

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