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Five things to know about Tennessee’s 2015 test scores, out today

Gov. Bill Haslam announces the release of state TCAP scores.
Gov. Bill Haslam announces the release of state TCAP scores in 2014.
Tennessee Department of Education

Tennessee officials’ annual test-score announcement on Thursday will mark the end of an era.

This year’s scores are the last for the multiple-choice tests known as TCAP that the state has administered for more than two decades. Next year, students are set to take a new exam that officials say will be a better measure of students’ skills.

The impending test switch doesn’t mean this year’s results aren’t important. Indeed, the scores will be used to evaluate students, teachers, schools, and districts alike.

Here’s what you need to know about the new test scores.

1. The state is coming off of years of gains — and exultance about them.

For the past four years, students’ TCAP scores improved in most subjects. A major question in this year’s scores will be whether and to what degree that trend continues.

Another question is how top officials talk about the scores.

Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam and then-commissioner Kevin Huffman credited the recent gains to a slew of education policy changes triggered by a 2010 state law called “First to the Top,” which included adopting new standards, mandating the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and targeting resources to the neediest schools. But Huffman resigned in January amid sharp criticism about the way he rolled out those initiatives, and Haslam appointed Lipscomb University dean Candice McQueen to replace him.

So far, the new commissioner has stayed the course when it comes to teacher evaluations and other policies instituted by her predecessor. McQueen’s first test score announcement could hint at whether that will continue to be the case, or if she’ll call for new changes to influence next year’s scores.

2. This year’s test was out of step with what was supposed to happen in classrooms.

When Tennessee adopted the Common Core, it also planned for students to start taking an exam that was tied to the standards this year. But lawmakers — concerned about the fact that the standards and exam, known as PARCC, had been developed outside the state — mandated in 2014 that the state hold on to TCAP for another year, then switch to another Tennessee-only exam.

That means this year’s exam was not designed to test what students are expected to know. TCAP was never updated to reflect the standards, only culled to remove questions that explicitly contradict the Common Core.

Officials say the TCAP is still a fair measure of student learning. But they’ve also acknowledged the discrepancy between what the test asks students to know and what teachers are asked to teach.

“We are teaching standards that are challenging students’ higher order thinking skills, and we have a test that’s still a bubble test,” Erin O’Hara, then assistant commissioner for data and research, said last summer. “Until we transition to assessments that are based more fully on the Common Core, we’ll continue to see people struggle on how to adjust.”

That transition begins next year, when students are set to take a new exam known as TNReady that is costing the state $108 million to roll out. That test will be aligned with the Common Core for at least two years, until Tennessee adopts new standards in 2017 after a review that Haslam initiated last year.

“The new TNReady assessment is going to be significantly more meaningful, especially for students and parents, but also for teachers,” said Teresa Wasson, communications director of the advocacy group State Collaborative On Reforming Education, or SCORE. “It’s going to provide a fair opportunity for students to show skills that they’ve learned — real world skills like critical thinking and problem solving, rather than test-taking tricks.”

In other states, the switch to Common Core tests has been accompanied by a drop-off in scores. Wasson said that while that could happen in Tennessee, she was hopeful that the state’s strong showing in 2013 on a national exam that tests skills similar to those called for under the Common Core meant that it would not.

3. For the first time in years, students’ grades held no clues about test scores.

The state provided information about this year’s test scores to teachers so they could factor them into students’ end-of-course grades, as the law has requires them to since 2010. But those “quick scores” did not offer indications of students’ TCAP performance the way they have in the past.

That’s because the way the state calculates quick scores changed mysteriously and quietly since last year. The scores that educators received last month were higher than many expected, given their students’ past test performance and current skill level.

Officials quickly clarified that because of a policy change that they had not communicated publicly, the higher quick scores did not necessarily represent higher proficiency rates. For example, a student in the fourth grade who had quick score of 88 — previously a suggestion of a “proficient” TCAP score — might still be considered “basic” on this year’s test.

As a result, educators have less information than they might have had in the past about test scores. And the confusion around quick scores means that state officials might face a tougher road than in the past to convincing Tennesseans that they are accurately describing changes in students’ skills.

4. The big picture is likely to show significant achievement gaps — and potentially to reflect efforts to close them.

As is true across the country, broad statewide trends tend to mask widely disparate performance among different groups of students.

Last year, the state’s achievement gaps between white students and non-white students narrowed slightly. But the performance gap between low-income students and other students did not shrink, and the gap between students with disabilities and their peers actually grew in a majority of subjects.

This year, the state rolled out a new program, Response to Instruction and Intervention, to target the lowest-performing students in hopes of closing those gaps. The new scores will offer insight into that program’s progress.

5. Lots of important information won’t come out until later.

Unusually, Tennessee releases test scores in three waves each year. The first data dump shows only statewide numbers, which are useful for assessing broad trends but not for answering more detailed questions about local change.

District- and school-level results will be released in the coming weeks. Those will allow for a closer analysis of how individual teachers and students performed, and of how local school improvement efforts, such as the Innovation Zone in Memphis and the state-run Achievement School District, are going.

And an update about how Tennessee students are faring compared to students in other states won’t arrive until this fall, when the latest results of a test known as the nation’s report card are released. That exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, is given to students in all 50 states and has been the only way to compare students in an era of state-specific annual tests. The last time scores came out, in 2013, Tennessee students had made the biggest gains in the country, although students’ absolute scores were still low. Whether Tennessee continues to set the pace now that many other states have begun testing students on the Common Core standards, which more closely reflect what NAEP assesses, is a big question.

Update: The scores are now available. Read about them here.

What are you looking for in this year’s statewide scores? Let us know in the comments.

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