Behind the numbers

2015 NAEP results: What you need to know

Gov. Bill Haslam is creating a task force to review school safety across Tennessee.

For two years, state leaders have trumpeted the claim that Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the nation in K-12 education, based on the state’s 2013 performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

It’s practically become a state slogan.

But while Tennessee has made significant progress compared with many other states, it might not be the education climber that its leaders declare.

The NAEP — administered every other year by the National Center for Education Statistics — is the only common yardstick that states have to see how they stack up against their neighbors. It reveals a lot about state and national trends. But the results also can be easy to misunderstand.

Here’s some points to keep in mind when examining the 2015 scores released on Wednesday:

It’s difficult to compare different grade levels and subjects. In 2013, Tennessee’s combined gains on all four subjects added up to 21.80 points, slightly less than the District of Columbia, but more than any other state. However, researchers say that you can’t see which state is “most improved” merely by adding, because the scales for the tests are different. A one-point gain on the fourth-grade math test might not be the same as a one-point gain on the eighth-grade reading test. In fact, the NAEP website warns users against comparing scale scores across subjects and grades. Combining the gains on all four tests would be much more complicated than the simple addition used by Tennessee officials.

It’s too soon to know what policies are to blame or credit for the 2015 results. In 2013, when Tennessee was in the early years of a massive K-12 overhaul spurred by the federal Race to the Top competition, arguments ensued among leaders, officials and politicians over who — or what policies — to thank for Tennessee’s gains. Those gains, though not the largest, were significant compared with other states.

However, researchers say day-of analysis is just speculation.

“It’s not that NAEP results can’t ever be used to identify the effects of policies. But in order to do that, you need to a really sophisticated analysis,” said Morgan Polikoff, a researcher from the University of Southern California.

It’s too soon to say if Tennessee’s 2013 results were due to the state’s switch to the Common Core State Standards, test-based teacher evaluations or numerous other policy changes over the last five years.

Tennessee isn’t the only state where leaders are quick to offer off-the-cuff conclusions tying results with particular policies. “This comes up every time NAEP results are released,” said Mike Hansen, deputy director of Brookings’ Brown Center of Education Policy. “Politicians or advocates use the data to further their agendas, even though the way they’re doing it is not good science.”

It’s helpful to zoom out. Tennessee’s gains in 2013 were an anomaly, when the nation as a whole was nearly stagnant. But both Tennessee and the nation have made large strides since students began taking the NAEP in the early 1990s. In particular, the report shows trends in achievement gaps among races, and how Tennessee stacks up historically against other states.

Polikoff advises using a big-picture approach. “It’s interesting and useful,” he said, “to look at overall trends.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede