First Person

My students were ready. Tennessee’s tests weren’t.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

“The most important thing that we focus on all year long is becoming better readers and writers,” I told my kids all year. “This test can show us how we’ve grown, and we should do our best on it because that’s what we do on anything we do: our best. We are ready.”

I mean what I say to my students. We were ready. Even after the crash of TNReady in 2016, my students and I entered this testing season confident.

The problem was, the test was not ready.

I want it to be ready. I want my students to be able to demonstrate what they’ve worked so hard to learn. I want them to feel pride in accomplishing the tasks before them. I want them to be excited to see their growth. I want to pore over those results myself and learn how I can better serve my students.

I want all the things that the Tennessee Department of Education says that it wants from TNReady. But what I do not want is a test that disrupts learning instead of measuring it.

I don’t want to build my students up for a test that doesn’t happen when and how we’ve prepared for it to happen. I do not want to rush my students into a computer lab and be sure they’re all prepared only to sit and wait for 20 minutes to log in, or to end up leaving the lab without testing because the system is down.

I don’t want to start another sentence in my classroom with, “I know we were supposed to test today, but …”

Ten minutes into an engaging lesson plan I’ve created on the fly because of canceled testing, I don’t want to stop and tell my students to get ready because Nextera, the testing system, is working again.

I don’t want to rush my kids through lunch because they have to hurry up and test so the next group can get in the lab.

I don’t want to tell them we have to push back our literature discussion groups because we’ve had to test for a week longer than planned — or that they can’t go to the library to check out books because the testing schedule simply makes it impossible.

I don’t want to stand in front of my students and tell them we’re going to try again even though most of them haven’t been able to submit their tests for the second time. Even though several of them have watched their test answers disappear. Even though we have all sat in the computer lab watching the “spinny ball of death” more than we’ve seen the green check mark that indicates success.

I don’t want to call the help desk for Nextera and hear, “Your estimated call time is more than 30 minutes” when there are 30 students sitting in a computer lab with “502 Gateway” error messages across their screens. I do not want to wonder why the review screen says “0 questions answered of 0 possible questions.” What does that even mean?

When three students try to submit their tests five different times but can’t because the system says they haven’t answered Question 29 even though they have, I don’t want to say again, “I don’t know, but don’t worry. We’ll fix it.” Will we?

I’m tired of reassuring my students that the test really is fixed this time. They don’t believe me. I don’t believe me.

I don’t want to see my students, sitting after the system has gone down, drawing cartoons of airplanes labeled “TNReady” crashing into mountains. I do not want to see them, when finished with their tests and waiting to submit them, typing extemporaneous essays about how TNReady has wasted their time.

I don’t want to overhear my students exchange guesses about the probability of whether the test will work today — as they walk to the lab to take a test that is supposed to reflect their learning and my teaching.

And I don’t want to try to find a delicate, non-manipulative way to try to communicate to students, “These results don’t count for your grades, our school, or our district, but they do count for me, so please try.”

I certainly don’t want to hear that the test my students took didn’t have anything to do with what they learned all year because, turns out, they took the test for a different grade. And I don’t want to read tweets and emails from the Tennessee Department of Education that treat these issues as regrettable but minor inconveniences.

I do not want to hear excuses or listen to anyone insist that these problems do not interfere with the validity of the results. I do not want these results factored into a number used to quantify my effect as a teacher.

But all of that has happened. I also understand that testing is federally mandated, and I agree that tests can provide important feedback. So here’s what I do want: A test that is reliable. A test that is developmentally appropriate in length and respectful of the instructional time students lose to testing. A test that provides timely and detailed data.

And I want my students to take that test, and for my colleagues and I to be held accountable for it, only once it’s actually, truly, ready.

Rachel Phillips is a seventh grade ELA teacher at Shafer Middle School in Gallatin, Tennessee.

Interesting moment

Tennessee civil rights leaders push back at superintendents’ call to pause state testing

PHOTO: Peyton Hoge
Members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition participate in the group's third annual summit in February in Nashville. The group formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty.

A group of civil rights leaders in Tennessee is urging the state to press on with standardized testing — placing them at odds with the superintendents of the state’s two largest and most diverse districts.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph asked Gov. Bill Haslam this week to press pause on TNReady testing to address widespread problems with the assessment.

But the members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, formed in 2016 to advocate for students of color and people who live in poverty, pushed back on Wednesday. The group argued that a moratorium on testing is not the answer to technical problems that plagued many students this past spring in the state’s transition to computerized exams.

“The quality of the TNReady assessment, which is aligned to our state standards, is not in question … [but test delivery issues] must be fixed,” the coalition said in a page-long statement.

“We urge all of our education leaders and policymakers to press forward, tackling our testing challenges head-on, and rebuilding trust by staying the course and getting it right for every student in Tennessee,” the group wrote.

The statement was signed by 13 education advocates including the leaders of the NAACP’s state conference, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville.

The exchange represented a unique moment between the coalition of civil rights advocates and the black superintendents of schools in Memphis and Nashville. Those districts represent one-fifth of Tennessee’s public school students, and most of the student population in their cities are black or Hispanic.

In their Aug. 3 letter sent on Monday, Hopson and Joseph told Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, that they have “no confidence” in TNReady.

PHOTO: MNPS
Shawn Joseph greets students in Nashville, where he has been director of schools since 2016.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

(Tennessee’s gubernatorial election is set for Nov. 6. Read what the candidates say about testing and other big education issues here.)

Calling for a “do-over” on the state’s testing program, Hopson and Joseph said that three years of missteps and outright failures administering TNReady has tanked public trust to “irretrievably low levels.”

Haslam has not commented about the superintendents’ request but told Chalkbeat last month that he believes TNReady is a good test with delivery issues that need to be fixed.


READ: Here’s the list of everything that went wrong with TNReady this year


The governor also said he believes passionately that Tennessee’s gains on national tests since 2011 stem from state policies grounded in higher academic standards, a test that measures student progress based on those standards, and using the results to hold students, schools, and teachers accountable.

The coalition backed that agenda on Wednesday. “Our Coalition believes that the path forward lies in maintaining a focus on setting high expectations, monitoring student and school performance, and prompting decisive action when they fall and stay behind,” the group said.

The coalition is a nonprofit organization funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, according to a spokeswoman for the group. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also is supported by the Gates and Kellogg foundations. You can read our full list of supporters here.)

Below is the coalition’s full letter, including individuals who are members of the group’s steering committee.

Taking aim

Declaring ‘no confidence’ in TNReady, Memphis and Nashville superintendents call for pause in state testing

The leaders of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are asking outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam to pause state testing indefinitely to let the next administration address a bevy of problems with the assessment.

In a letter sent Monday afternoon, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph wrote that a “do-over” is needed on the TNReady testing program to salvage the confidence of students, parents, and educators.

“After years of repeated implementation failures and missteps by multiple vendors, we believe educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels,” they wrote Haslam and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen.

“We are challenged to explain to teachers, parents, and students why they must accept the results of a test that has not been effectively deployed,” they continued.

A spokeswoman for Haslam did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for McQueen said the commissioner had not yet received the letter, which was dated Aug. 3.

The message from the superintendents — whose districts in Memphis and Nashville represent nearly a fifth of the state’s public school students — further elevates testing as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

However, Hopson and Joseph said action is needed before the next administration and General Assembly take office in January.

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide collaborative conversation,” they wrote.

That’s unlikely to happen, though. Haslam has fiercely championed having a state assessment that measures student progress based on Tennessee’s new academic standards. He told Chalkbeat last month that he does not want problems with testing to undo state education policies that he believes have led to gains on national tests.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said Tennessee already has a working group on testing that’s composed mostly of educators.

“We’ve engaged educators extensively in the development of TNReady, and for the past several months we had educators from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools serving on our Assessment Task Force to advise our next steps with TNReady,” Gast said in a statement.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s high school in Memphis prepare to take their TNReady geometry test online last spring.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials. But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results be moot for this year for accountability purposes.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online again. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Hopson and Joseph, whose districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding, also want more state money to offset the technology costs related to TNReady.

“Districts including ours spent tens of millions of dollars over the years investing in new technology to prepare for an online assessment that never came to fruition,” they wrote.

“These investments essentially amounted to unfunded mandates by the State, and in the end resulted in largely wasted local taxpayer resources that could have been directed into teacher salaries, professional development, and other critical needs. By the time the State achieves a fully functioning online assessment system, our original investments will have been rendered obsolete …”

Gast said the state has invested an additional $1.5 billion in technology for schools since 2011, including doubling the amount of annual recurring technology funding. She noted that students have used computer tablets purchased for testing for other instructional needs during this time.

You can read the full letter below.