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Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

Kayleigh Skinner

Like Tennessee’s NAEP scores, leaders’ script stays the same

Tennessee leaders and educators are ecstatic about the state’s 2015 scores on a set of national exams — even though the results were generally stagnant.

The state did manage to hold its ground while scores across most of the nation dropped in the National Assessment of Education Performance, known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card. But instead of speaking candidly about that modest accomplishment, Tennessee leaders and educators highlighted outperforming more states than ever before, particularly in fourth-grade math.

And because the flat scores contradict Tennessee’s self-proclaimed status as “fastest-improving state in the nation” in K-12 education, leaders focused on gains made since 2011 — riding on the coattails of the state’s 2013 performance when its students made some of the largest gains on all four subjects.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen celebrated the results at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, with the Cordova High School marching band offering a jubilant soundtrack in the background.

“Based on 2015 NAEP results, we are still the fastest-improving state in the nation since 2011,” Haslam told the crowd, which included Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and state representatives from the Memphis area.

“Since 2013, Tennessee has jumped past 12 other states in math,” McQueen added. “It is a big deal,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

How have Tennessee’s math scores changed?

Nearly 200 miles away, more than a hundred Tennessee principals watched a live-stream event from a leadership conference in Nashville. Though McQueen could not hear them, they cheered and clapped appreciatively throughout her remarks.

Barbara Frazier, principal of Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, said she was especially proud, since her school was one of only 200 across the state where students actually took the NAEP earlier this year in a representative sampling.

“We told the students, ‘It’s not on your shoulders; just show us what you can do!'” she said. “They showed us they were ready.”

An educator for 30 years, Gower said she has seen a lot of changes in Tennessee — foremost among them the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system with a detailed rubric. She credits the new system with the state’s academic gains.

“It’s made it easier to have intentional conversations about learning,” she said.

Attending the Cordova event, Karen Vogelsang, the 2014-2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, also cited policy changes as the reason Tennessee is outperforming more states.

“It shows that what’s going on the classroom is working,” said Vogelsang, a fourth-grade teacher for Shelby County Schools. “It shows the hard work that teachers are doing is paying off. … These are the students that have received that instruction related to [the Common Core] standards. It shows our teachers are teaching to those standards, and things are going up.”

How have Tennessee’s reading scores changed?

Data source: NAEP Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

In her remarks, McQueen thanked former state education commissioner Kevin Huffman, who was in attendance and who championed implementation of the Common Core and teacher evaluations during his tenure from 2011 to 2014.

“This moment is part of a relay,”  she said. “We take the baton from someone else and we move forward.”

Education leaders and advocates across the state chimed in words of congratulations, even if scores were flat. Taking their cues from Haslam and McQueen, many repeated that Tennessee is the fastest-improving state in the nation, a claim based on the sum of gains on all four tests in 2013. The NAEP does not recommend comparing tests directly, since grading scales differ.

“In 2013 Tennessee was the fastest-improving state, and the 2015 report card confirms that the 2013 gains were real and lasting,” said CEO Jamie Woodson of SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. “This year Tennessee students have, for the first time ever, reached the top 25 in one subject after sustained progress since 2011.”

Representing the State Board of Education, Executive Director Sara Heyburn said Tennessee “is clearly on the right track in creating an environment for student success with our focus on high expectations, rigorous standards, fewer, but better assessments, and more transparency and accountability for teachers in measuring our success.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said in a press release that the day the 2013 NAEP scores were released was one of the “greatest of his career.”

“The fact that we have maintained and built upon our success puts this day right next to it,” Ramsey said. “It is endlessly gratifying to see the policies and reforms we champion affect childrens’ lives in a meaningful way. Obviously, the true credit goes to the teachers, parents and children who made this possible.”

Although Tennessee typically ranked at the bottom of the nation prior to overhauling K-12 education in the last five years, researchers caution that NAEP results are only statements on how well a state’s students are doing on math and reading — not on the success of its policies.

“You should never think of NAEP, or even the state assessments, as a referendum on a particular package of policies or reforms,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Chalkbeat reporter Kayleigh Skinner contributed to this story.