Nation's Report Card

Two years after outsized gains, Tennessee’s scores on national exam are flat

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen is introduced in December 2014 as Tennessee's new education commissioner by Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee’s self-proclaimed status as having the “fastest-improving” students in the country is in jeopardy after the state posted flat scores on a national reading and math test.

The stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Education Performance, known as NAEP, come two years after Tennessee drew national attention for making outsized gains. But they also came as many states posted slight decreases on the exam, suggesting that Tennessee students had avoided pitfalls that other students had experienced.

Overall, Tennessee students are now on par with students across the nation in most areas of the assessment, known informally as “the nation’s report card” because it long has been the only way to compare students’ performance across states.

The results come five years after Tennessee legislators changed education policies to make the state eligible for federal Race to the Top funds. Gov. Bill Haslam cited those changes — which included adopting the shared Common Core standards and factoring student test scores into teacher evaluations — as reasons for the 2013 gains, and he said they are continuing to pay off today.

“A new set of fourth- and eighth-grade students proved that the gains we made in 2013 were real,” Haslam said. “Tennessee is distinguishing itself as the state to watch in education, and today’s announcement is a testament to all of the hard work put in day to day by our educators and students.”

How have Tennessee’s math scores changed?

During a call with reporters on Tuesday, Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen bristled at the characterization of this year’s scores as flat and argued that the new scores show that Tennessee’s academic ascendancy continues.

But Tennessee’s slight gains since 2013 were not statistically significant, and state officials later said it was not appropriate to describe the state as having higher scores.

Still, McQueen emphasized that Tennessee is on track to meet her goal of being in the top half of states in all four subjects by 2019. “Years ago, I’m not sure people would have thought that was possible,” she said.

U.S. students have taken the NAEP exams every two years since the early 1990s, in an effort to provide a consistent measure of student performance at a time when states’ standards varied widely.

Now, many states, including Tennessee, are in the process of adopting new tests that reflect shared standards, potentially allowing for more detailed and frequent comparisons of students across the nation. That means the test serves the dual role of comparing student performance across states and assessing whether states have achieved their goal of crafting more “accurate” measures of student achievement with their new exams.

Indeed, the gap between Tennessee students’ scores on the state’s own tests and their scores on NAEP was one factor that propelled state officials to adopt the Common Core standards and begin developing tests to measure whether students have met them. In recent years, the state removed questions from its existing tests that do not reflect the Common Core standards, but a test designed with the Common Core in mind won’t launch until 2016.

State officials have warned that scores are likely to fall sharply then, in line with what has happened in other states that have administered Common Core-aligned exams. The gap between Tennessee students’ NAEP and state test scores ranged from 10 percentage points in fourth-grade math to 25 points in eighth-grade math. Fifty-four percent of Tennessee eighth-graders met the state’s math proficiency bar, but just 29 percent achieved proficiency on the NAEP exam.

How have Tennessee’s reading scores changed?

Data source: NAEP Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

McQueen said the NAEP results point to areas where more work needs to be done, especially in fourth-grade reading, where just a third of Tennessee students passed NAEP’s proficiency bar. Only six states had lower scores.

Declining literacy scores were a dark spot on Tennessee’s otherwise sunny state test score report earlier this year, and McQueen has made reading the center of her new strategic plan for the state’s schools. McQueen said she expects that the plan — which includes a focus on early education and overhaul of teacher preparation programs — would help catapult Tennessee students’ reading scores on both the NAEP and state tests in the future.

“These scores shine a light on places we know we can improve,” she said. “We have to have renewed focus on all students’ reading abilities.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.