By Sally Absher

Last week, the Tennessee Department of Education (TNDOE) Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that the department intends to award Questar, a national leader in large-scale assessment, a contract to develop and administer Tennessee’s annual state assessments for the 2016-17 school year. The initial contract is for two years with a maximum liability of $30M per year or $60M total, with option to renew.

After the disastrous rollout of the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) Common Core-aligned assessments across the country in 2013-14, TNDOE changed their mind on PARCC, instead continuing with the traditional TCAP test for one more year despite concerns that it was not fully aligned with Common Core standards.

TNDOE then selected Measurement, Inc. to develop and administer the TNReady Assessment for the 2015-2016 school year. After continued technical issues, and delays and failure to deliver the paper and pencil backup assessments, TNDOE fired Measurement Inc. earlier this spring.

McQueen said that for the upcoming 2016-17 school year, the Questar-provided state assessment for grades 3-8 will be administered via paper and pencil. Tennessee will phase in online administration over a three-year period to ensure state, district, and vendor technology readiness.

TNDOE has pledged to work closely with Questar to provide an online option for high school End of Course (EOC) exams if both schools and the testing platform demonstrate early proof of successful online administration. But even if schools demonstrate readiness for online administration, districts will still have the option to choose paper and pencil EOCs for their high school students.

Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas issued the following statement: “I’m pleased that the state has settled on a vendor for our annual statewide achievement test.  Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that we’re still wed to paper and pencil, but I like giving high schools the option of an online assessment.  The good news is we’re making progress as a state in aligning our tests to the higher academic standards we now have.”

(See this article for another view of Tennessee’s “higher academic standards)

Questar will develop and administer the 2016-17 assessment under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.  The department said that similar to the TNReady test developed by Measurement Inc., next year’s tests will continue to feature multiple types of questions that are “designed to measure the depth of our state academic standards, specifically students’ problem solving and critical thinking skills.”

The department also plans to reduce and streamline state tests and will communicate additional specifics in the coming weeks.

“Students, teachers, and parents deserve a better testing experience in Tennessee, and we believe today’s announcement is another step in the right direction,” Commissioner McQueen said in the press release. She added, “We are excited to move forward in partnership with Tennessee teachers, schools, and districts to measure student learning in a meaningful way, and reset the conversation around assessment.”

Questar currently develops and administers large-scale annual assessments for other states, including Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, and New York. Questar has partnered with Indiana on EOC exams for 14 years and with Missouri for five years. The department issued the official letter of intent to Questar last Wednesday. Pursuant to state contract procedures, after a minimum seven-day period, the contract will be finalized and fully executed.

After researching multiple vendors, the department determined that Questar has a proven track record of excellence in statewide testing, administering large-scale assessments via paper and online, and developing a high quality test quickly, which makes it particularly well suited for Tennessee at this crucial time. This past school year, Questar administered the New York grade 3–8 assessments to more than 1.3 million students. In 2015, Questar also developed the Mississippi annual assessment on a timeline similar to Tennessee’s.

But the debut of the Questar assessment in Mississippi, which dropped PARCC last year, has not been without problems. Kate Royals at the Jackson Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported in March that some schools received flawed Common Core practice tests that the state Education Department created with questions from its new vendor, Questar Assessment.

Questar provided “practice items” to the Mississippi Department of Education, who then put the practice tests together. But there were “some items that weren’t entirely accurate” leading to errors on the practice tests that had to be corrected by teachers.

The Questar name may be familiar to some. They were the runner up behind Measurement Inc. to develop the TNReady test. They were also recently named as the state’s vendor for an optional second-grade assessment to replace the state’s previously administered optional K–2 (SAT-10) assessment.  Knox County discontinued the K-2 assessment in 2014, agreeing with many primary grade educators that such a test was both age- and developmentally-inappropriate.

Preliminary research into Questar reveals that they (along with PARCC, AIR, SBAC, and Pearson) are a member of IMS Global, a global data collection organization. Questar also supports Competency Based Education and Assessments – the new name for Outcome Based Education of the 1990s, which promoted manipulating a student’s individual values, beliefs, and values to meet the required outcome.

As with PARCC, SBAC, and other high-stakes assessments, the Questar assessments are adaptive.  Adaptive testing is not a true measure of academic achievement because it selects the next question based on how the student answers the previous question.  For example, if a student answers a question incorrectly, the system selects an easier question next time.  An assessment that is different for every student is not a standardized assessment.

Is this the “reset” we were hoping for?