Scores in

The report card is in for Tennessee grade-schoolers. It’s not good, but it’s expected.

Most of Tennessee’s elementary and middle school students are lagging in English and math, many significantly, according to statewide scores released Wednesday after a two-year gap in testing.

Two-thirds of students taking the state’s new test this spring scored below grade level in English language arts, with a slightly better showing in math.

Of those, 48 percent were “approaching” expectations in English and 36 percent in math, while more than a fifth fell far below expectations in both subjects.

As expected, students did significantly better on the state’s science tests, which were based on standards that have been in place since 2008. Tennessee will switch to more rigorous science standards and a harder exam next school year.

The low scores for English and math for grades 3-8 were expected under the state’s transition to a new test aligned for the first time with more rigorous Common Core standards, which have been in classrooms since 2012. (Tennessee students had performed significantly better on its previous TCAP exams, which did not emphasize critical thinking skills and were based on outdated academic standards.)

The new TNReady scores mirror the poor performance of high schoolers last year in their first year under the new test and tougher benchmarks. The expectation is that grade-schoolers’ scores will begin to rise next year, just as they did for high schoolers for the most part this year in their second year of testing.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the results, while sobering, represent a new baseline for Tennessee. She emphasized the need for presenting a more accurate picture of student performance that is consistent with national testing.

“This is a key moment for our state, as we are now transitioning to the point where we have a true understanding of where students are from elementary through high school, and we can use that information to better support their growth,” she said in a news release.

At the same time, McQueen gave Tennessee an “A” for honesty and transparency about the readiness of its students, in contrast to the “F” it earned in 2007 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for “truth in advertising.” At the time, a wide gap existed between the results of the state’s test and national tests like the National Assessment of Education Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card.

“This is a big deal,” she told reporters during a morning conference call. “We see this as an opportunity and a reset moment for Tennessee. We’re now sharing better, more honest information about where our students are … and can move forward.”

The long-awaited scores will begin to bridge the two-year gap in standardized testing data that began in 2016 when McQueen canceled TNReady for students in grades 3-8 because of a series of technical and logistical snafus under the switch to online testing.

The void has challenged the state’s once-vaunted system of accountability, forcing educators to depend on mostly local assessments to inform them about which students are growing and where they need more support.

McQueen said educators are already digging into the district- and school-level data they received last week under a public embargo. Those nitty-gritty results will be released later this fall using a new score report designed to help parents and teachers better understand where their students stand. The state also plans to provide reports in the weeks ahead to highlight the performance of historically underserved students.

The commissioner expects her department to distribute all scores much sooner next year, allowing educators to make adjustments in courses and planning before the new school year starts. The first year under a new test requires an extended scoring and review process, which included approval of grading thresholds by the State Board of Education.

Correction: Oct. 4, 2017: This story has been updated to correct how test scores are characterized. Because of the way Tennessee’s tests are designed, the scores reflect the proportion of students who met the state’s standards, not the proportion of students who passed the test.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.