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Tennessee’s first pandemic test scores will be released soon. Here’s what you should know.

Student holds a pencil to a notebook placed on a desk.
Nearly 750,000 public school students took standardized tests in Tennessee in 2020-21. The first results are to be released on Monday, Aug. 2.
Marilyn Nieves / Getty Images

Tennessee officials got to deliver a bit of good news this week: More students than expected took state tests for 2020-21, despite the pandemic. The harder news comes next week when the state releases its first standardized test scores since the COVID crisis began.

The Department of Education plans to drop statewide data on Monday.

The scores will offer a gut check on how much Tennessee students know — and don’t know — after one of the most disruptive school years in modern American history. Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has hinted that Tennessee’s test results are sobering.

While the data won’t be used to evaluate teachers or spur state interventions in low-performing schools, education leaders say it could be the most important information ever generated under the 40-year-old Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, better known as TCAP. Since last year’s standardized tests were canceled nationwide due to the emerging virus, the scores will offer the first deep look in two years into student learning across Tennessee.

“This will finally give us a baseline understanding of where we stand going into a new school year, and that’s going to be important to our recovery and acceleration efforts,” said Sara Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Expect scores to tumble.

Test results released earlier in Texas and Indiana offered a discouraging glimpse of the pandemic’s toll on learning. Both states saw substantial declines, especially in math, where there’s growing concern that online instruction may not translate as well as with other subjects. Drops were steeper in districts that provided most of their instruction online instead of in person. And students of color and those living in poverty were hit especially hard.

Tennessee is likely to see similar patterns.

“We expect, just like we’ve seen in the national data that has been released so far, that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to have a negative [impact] on what we might normally see in terms of outcomes,” Schwinn said Monday while touring a summer learning program in Memphis.

A bright spot: A lot of students showed up for testing this year.

As more contagious coronavirus variants emerged, concern grew that students, especially those learning remotely, wouldn’t show up at schools or alternative testing sites to take Tennessee’s spring assessment on paper.

But on Tuesday, the state reported that 95% of Tennessee’s testing population in grades 3-11 took their tests, reaching the nation’s standard participation threshold. And all 147 districts met or exceeded the 80% minimum participation rate set by the legislature to be held harmless for any disappointing results.

In total, nearly 750,000 Tennessee public school students were tested.

Participation matters. The more students who test, the more complete and actionable the data is. That makes it easier to compare results across years and less risky to make strategic investments and policy decisions accordingly.

But test results won’t tell ‘the whole story,’ say some education leaders.

They don’t want Tennesseans to put an inordinate focus on state test scores, especially during a public health crisis.

“Assessment is just a snapshot from one day in a student’s journey. It’s not going to tell the whole story,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization.

Brown says teacher grade books provide a fuller picture of student achievement based on grades for everything from traditional tests to classroom discussions to project-based learning.

Dale Lynch, who leads the state superintendents organization, said Tennessee should look beyond test scores and celebrate the perseverance and resilience of students and teachers during a year when they were figuring out how to learn and teach virtually. Keeping school communities healthy and safe was an even bigger priority, he said.

“We’re going to have a whole lot of Monday morning quarterbacks when it comes to how we handled COVID. To forget how far we’ve come would be a travesty,” Lynch said.

It’s also important to remember that schools do more than teach students about reading, writing, and arithmetic, said Lauren Baker, a board member for the Tennessee School Counselors Association.

“Whatever the scores look like on paper, my hope is that we will pause to reflect on what our schools overcame last year,” Baker said. “What the scores won’t show us, unfortunately, is how our students are coping with our rapidly changing society.”

This year’s test data will help chart learning recovery efforts going forward.

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration already is investing heavily in early literacy, summer learning programs, and after-school tutoring as Tennessee tries to maximize over $4 billion in federal COVID relief funds flowing into its public schools. Schwinn is incentivizing local districts to follow suit and spend more than the federally required 20% of their shares of stimulus dollars toward learning recovery and acceleration.

A Tennessee teacher works with students at a summer learning camp at Rutland Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, east of Nashville, on June 30, 2021.
Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

But the pandemic is expected to undo years of hard-fought achievement gains on national tests, which will require long-term, research-based strategies to recoup any losses and accelerate learning.

“The results are going to give us a clearer idea of which students have had their learning disrupted the most as a result of the pandemic — and then to make sure there’s a plan to help get them on track,” said Teresa Wasson, a spokeswoman for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Tennessee research and advocacy group.

Early concerns that the pandemic would worsen pre-pandemic test score gaps along racial and economic lines appear to be bearing out.

According to two national studies released this week, students of color and those from low-income families have been hit the hardest. One analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey found that first through sixth-graders who are white fell behind an average of four months in math, compared to six months for Black and Latino students.

Tennessee will be looking closely at the performance of those same student groups and students who have disabilities or those learning to speak English as a new language.

“When we look at scores in the average, you can make quick assumptions about how all students are doing, and that’s why it’s really important to see how we did across our student groups so we can focus our resources there,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, director of The Education Trust in Tennessee.

Recovery must be a focus of parents, too.

Eventually, after the release of district- and school-level scores, individual student reports will be sent electronically and on paper to parents to help them understand how their children are progressing compared to peers across their district and state.

“When parents get their family reports, we recommend they take a copy to their next teacher conference and talk about what the report says, what it means, and how they can work together to help their student in the year ahead,” Wasson said.

You can learn more about Tennessee’s testing program here.

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