Audit: Student assessment lacked proper oversight from state

(RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Education failed to provide adequate oversight while rolling out its problem-plagued student assessment test in the spring that resulted in widespread delays and outrage among lawmakers, according to an audit released Wednesday.

The auditors said they had “concerns that the department has proceeded with large-scale procurements involving millions of dollars under intense time constraints,” and added that while the state can’t anticipate all potential pitfalls, it should recognize the pressure to implement the test may have negatively impacted students.

The review comes after teachers and students experienced repeated failures of the April 16 assessment, causing some districts to cancel testing. By Day Two, the persistent internet troubles surrounding the test caused the vendor to warn a cyberattack was behind the problem.

However, a review of the April incident later found that a change in text-to-speech configuration helped spark other problems experienced during the TNReady spring online testing.

The report states department staff were alerted in November 2017 that Questar — the vendor who administers the online test — alerted the state of its change in text-to-speech, but that change was not passed on to department leadership.

“This omission highlighted our concern about the lack of proper internal communication among department staff, key department groups, and top management,” the report said.

The report also noted that auditors had difficulty reviewing the spring assessment because some key phone records and emails were not retained. The report warned that without a proper paper trail, the department “cannot ensure transparency” nor spark confidence that important decisions were sufficiently vetted.

In response to the audit, the department in the report says it has addressed the issues outlined in the report by amending the vendor contract to include more monitoring and communication requirements.

“The department will work with the vendor to improve documentation of that change control process. However, appropriate oversight is thwarted when a vendor departs from their own documented processes as was apparent in this situation,” the department said in its response to the audit.

In a follow-up comment, department spokeswoman Sara Gast said the state had “learned a lot from this process,” adding there was nothing new in the report and the department has a more collective expertise now than it did in April.

“The findings of this report underscore the importance of contracting with a strong testing vendor, and the report repeatedly notes that Questar’s performance was the root of the issues we experienced this spring,” Gast said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Haslam said the state plans on contracting with a new vendor by the spring for the 2019-2020 school year and is currently preparing the contracting process.

In 2016, the state canceled its five-year $108 million contract with a testing company because of repeated failures, including the inability of students to get online to take the tests and later with problems getting paper assessments shipped to schools on time.

Last year, state officials announced that nearly 10,000 of the tests were scored incorrectly. This year, lawmakers scrambled during the final days of the legislative session to pass last-minute legislation ensuring no students, teachers or schools suffered as a result of repeated failures with the state assessment test.

That’s because state law says teachers must be evaluated partly based on the tests, as well as students and schools.

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