Students were ready. Teachers were ready.
The Tennessee Department of Education, as it turned out, wasn’t ready.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the Tennessee Department of Education still wasn’t ready.
Two years after the state’s first experiment with its TN Ready online assessment ended in a meltdown, a renewed effort was rolled out to widespread failures Monday and Tuesday, with most school systems experiencing setbacks as students attempted to log on, take or submit their tests.
With educators’ and students’ faith in the Department of Education’s testing system already shaken, public confidence in the way the state is preparing for its assessments is on the brink of shattering, and perhaps rightfully so.
It’s worth acknowledging that the Tennessee Department of Education is at the mercy of third-party vendors who are providing the hardware and software for TN Ready. But the buck has to stop somewhere, and when online testing failures encompass multiple years and multiple vendors, it’s time to point the finger squarely at the Department of Education — even more-so when the widespread paper testing snafus and setbacks of the past six years are taken into consideration.
As Tennessee focuses on higher academic standards, the state has placed the onus for accountability on educators and students. As Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray said on Tuesday, “Students and teachers across the state are told these are high-stakes tests. Teachers’ jobs are on the line, students’ futures are on the line.”
Gray was not being melodramatic. Even though their teachers try to calm their fears about the TCAP assessments, urging them to try their best but know that their best is good enough, students know that their testing effort could count as a not-insignificant portion of their grade. Across the state, students as young as their late elementary years stress themselves to the point of becoming almost physically ill as testing week arrives, convinced that the outcome of TCAP will cause them to fail the school year and be forced to repeat the same grade the following year.
How cruel is it, then, for these students — already stressed — to attempt to log in for their test after days and weeks of mentally preparing themselves, only to find that an issue with the state’s servers is creating delays? Even worse are the instances where students log in and take part of the test, only to have the system crash. Or complete the test, only to find that they’re unable to submit their results and the work has been lost. (The Department of Education says completed-but-not-submitted test work is saved on local computers, but that requires each teacher to know which child used which computer.)
That is the environment in which tens of thousands of Tennessee’s students have been attempting to test this week. The first day of testing on Monday brought widespread failures, with Questar — the vendor in charge of the the testing software — saying that a “conflict with the log-in system” was at fault. The second day of testing on Tuesday brought more failures, with Questar claiming its data center “may have experienced a deliberate attack.”
Given the circumstances, it’s frustrating to the point of irritating to see the efforts of Commissioner of Education Dr. Candice McQueen to put a positive spin on the failures. On Monday, McQueen claimed that the issue “was not statewide” — which appeared to be mere semantics, given how many school systems were impacted across the state — and said that “more than 20,000” students took TN Ready after the issue was resolved. On Tuesday, McQueen used Twitter to say that “we have over 22,000 students successfully testing online at this point in the morning.”
The exact number of Tennessee’s roughly one million students attempting to test online seems to be difficult to ascertain. But with all high school students required to test online and many school systems — like the Scott County School System — opting to have grades 5-8 test online this year before it becomes mandatory next year, suffice to say that 20,000 students is merely a drop in the bucket.
The Tennessee General Assembly’s decision to hold immediate hearings and votes on the issue are well warranted. Given the chaotic roll-out of the TN Ready online effort, it is unfair to hold teachers or students accountable for whatever the results might be this year.
But perhaps it’s time for a deeper examination of the state’s TCAP preparation, given the repeated shortcomings of recent years. Parents are asked to invest, and they have done so — by feeding their children breakfast, making sure they are off to bed early and getting them to school on time. Teachers are required to invest, and they have done so — by spending months prepping for these mid-April assessments, even to the point of going to work sick because they felt TCAP was too close at hand for them to entrust the day’s lessons to a substitute teacher. But it seems fair to say that the Tennessee Department of Education has failed its parents and its teachers, and it has also failed those who matter most — its students.
And if the idea is to continue convincing an increasingly cynical public that end-of-year assessments in the form of a few days of standardized testing is necessary to judge teachers’ and students’ worth from an entire year of work, the TN Ready debacle is failing that idea.
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