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Decline in reading scores a dark spot in otherwise sunny test score trends

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam present statewide TCAP results for 2015 in early July. For the most part, scores went up statewide. But at individual schools, it can be hard to explain why.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam present statewide TCAP results for 2015 in early July. For the most part, scores went up statewide. But at individual schools, it can be hard to explain why.
G. Tatter

Even as Tennessee students continued to make substantial gains in math and science this year, their reading test scores remain stubbornly low, state education officials announced Thursday.

And officials began to lay the groundwork for declines next year, when the state for the first time will administer a test that reflects the Common Core standards.

Just 48.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 passed the state’s proficiency bar in reading, down from a peak of 50.5 percent in 2013 and 49.5 percent last year.

The trajectory was very different in math, where 55.6 percent of students in grades 3-8 met the state’s proficiency standards this year. The 4.3 point single-year gain in math means that Tennessee students have increased their math proficiency rate by 21 points since 2010, in a shift that a national exam that compares student performance across states has borne out.

“We have a lot to celebrate in these results,” Gov. Bill Haslam said at a press conference in Nashville. “I also want to use these results to examine where we need to improve.”

(Here’s our preview of the new test scores and what they mean — and don’t mean.)

Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said they saw promising signs in higher-than-ever math scores, across-the-board high school gains, and a narrowing of the performance gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.

As he did last year, Haslam credited the gains to policy changes triggered by a 2010 state law called “First to the Top.” Those included adopting new standards, mandating the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and targeting resources to the neediest schools.

But he and McQueen said they could not explain why reading test scores had inched downward for the second year in a row and now are essentially the same as they were before any of the policy changes took place.

The fact that students with disabilities took the regular state exams, instead of an alternative test, for the first time this year might have impacted literacy scores, but not much, McQueen said.

“We have a clear trend that has nothing to do with that,” she said.

She and Haslam did not announce any major policy changes to address the lagging literacy scores but did say that the state would focus more on English language learners, students with special needs, and early childhood education.

“We have seen reading scores remain relatively flat in early grades over the past five years, yet we know this is one of the most critical skills we can equip our students with for success in life,” McQueen said. “It’s our job to ensure that Tennessee students are prepared to take advantage of opportunities after graduation, and we must continue to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to reach all students.”

McQueen attributed gains by black, Hispanic, Native American, and poor students in all high school subjects and 3-8 math and reading to higher expectations and to a new program, called Response to Instruction and Intervention or RTI-squared, that is meant to ensure that schools reach their most struggling students.

“We’re seeing growth we expected to happen when you use RTI appropriately and you also begin to transition to what the belief of ‘all means all’ does to actually impact behavior,” she said.

High school scores had the most significant growth, suggesting that previous gains in elementary and middle school grades have begun to bear fruit.

The gains were sharpest for Algebra II, considered to be a make-or-break course for students’ future success in college. More than 54 percent of students in 2015 performed at or above grade level, compared to less than a third in 2011 and almost 48 percent last year.

McQueen said the advances could be tied to higher expectations. The state has ramped up efforts to graduate more students on time and has made college more attainable through Tennessee Promise, which allows graduating high school seniors to attend two years of community college for free.

“Our high school students see what’s next,” McQueen said. “They see the possibilities, and their ability to do that.”

McQueen said she expects to see test scores fall across the board next year, when the state transitions to TNReady, a Common Core-aligned test that is supposed to assess higher-order thinking skills and, unlike this year’s tests, will require students to provide their own answers rather than simply select from multiple choices.

The new test will more accurately reflect what students have learned, she said, adding that she expects to see growth after the first year. (Those trends have played out in most states that have already started giving tests that reflect the new standards.)

“Our upward trends as a state show a story of progress,” she said. “We know we have more work to do, but this is a great story for Tennessee.”

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