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State officials walk fine line of praising test scores and bracing for drops next year

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

Trumpeting “sustained growth” in district-level achievement scores for high school and math and science, the Tennessee Department of Education on Wednesday issued a press release identifying a litany of gains from the state’s latest test results.

  • Most students passed the state’s math test in four times as many school districts as in 2011;
  • More than 80 percent of districts posted elementary and middle school math gains;
  • More than two-thirds of districts improved student chemistry scores.

Left unspoken was a firm warning: Things aren’t going to be so sunny next year.

That’s when, for the first time, Tennessee students in grades 3-11 will take tests that are designed to match Common Core standards — the outline of what students should learn and when they should learn them — which the state adopted in 2010. In other states that have shifted to Common Core-aligned tests, scores have dropped precipitously.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called attention to that likelihood in June, when she released state-level test scores. She also said that she hoped the state’s scores would recover quickly under the state’s new TNReady test, which is designed to assess higher-order thinking skills in math and language arts than the current version of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP.

“We do know that the first year of TNReady … we are going to have a dip,” McQueen said at the time. “There is the expectation that proficiency will go down, because we are moving forward. There is an expectation that our scores next year, like any new assessment, will go down. But we hope that’s a one-year story.”

In simultaneously congratulating schools and cautioning them, McQueen is navigating a fine line that education chiefs have walked before in New York, Maryland, Kentucky and other states that have transitioned to tougher tests aligned to the new standards.

David Steiner, who headed New York’s schools during the lead-up to Common Core-aligned tests, said state officials there aggressively worked to manage expectations in the year before the new tests, when scores dropped by as much as 30 points across all grades.

“You pick your target year, and you build a staircase, and until that time, you announce both results,” he said. “You tell every parent whether they want to hear it or not.”

So far, Tennessee’s efforts to raise awareness of what’s coming have focused primarily on educators. Last week, the state released its guide to walk teachers through how they can get their students ready for TNReady, reminding them that “the new TNReady TCAP tests are designed to assess true student understanding, not just basic memorization and test-taking skills.”

The point of the new standards — and the tests that measure whether students have achieved them — is to get students to gain the skills needed to succeed after high school. Currently, Tennessee’s average ACT composite score of 19.3 is well below the national average of 21, the minimum score to be considered college-ready.

Kevin Huffman, McQueen’s predecessor in the Tennessee Department of Education, said it’s a good idea to champion gains even though it’s clear that students and schools are far from where they ideally should be.

“The messaging of improvement is really important,” Huffman said Wednesday, “because teachers and principals work really hard, and I think we can give credit even when we know it’s a long race.”

Ultimately, the just-released 2014-15 scores represent the last hurrah before the state launches its new academic checkup, which is designed to ensure that all students are moving forward, on track to graduate from high school, and able to be successful in post-secondary school and the workplace.

Leading educators say the painful transition is necessary, though.

“We’ve got a national problem,” Steiner said, “which is that the standard of high school graduation is not the same as the standard for taking a college course, and a very high number of students are performing right in that gap.”

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