Are Children Learning

Tennessee House unanimously approves Common Core compromise

House Speaker Beth Harwell leads the penultimate floor session Monday of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Legislation designed to address Tennessee’s emotional debate over whether to keep or scrap the Common Core academic standards passed unanimously Monday to a round of applause in the House of Representatives.

The bill goes Tuesday before the full Senate, where approval is also expected. Passage there would send the measure to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam, who has signed off on the bill sponsored by Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) and Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

The compromise legislation is meant to appease Tennesseans who virulently oppose the Common Core State Standards for math and English — for reasons ranging from vagueness to federal overreach — as well as those who think the academic benchmarks are crucial to the state’s effort to improve the quality of Tennessee schools.

The bill would add an additional step — vetting by a panel appointed and approved by the legislature — to the current year-long standards review initiated last fall by the governor.

Spivey, who spearheaded the compromise, has said his bill ensures that Tennesseans have adequate input and oversight over the standards review. At the same time, he said, the compromise prevents mass confusion that a hasty jettison of the current standards, which Tennessee adopted in 2010, might cause. Numerous educators — from school superintendents to college presidents — have urged lawmakers to allow the current review process to work.

At least some supporters of Haslam’s education agenda were briefly concerned about a last-minute amendment by Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) that would have permitted parents to opt their children out of annual standardized testing.

However, Hill later withdrew the amendment and said he planned to take up the issue with the state Department of Education during the coming months.

In other states, opting out of testing has been one of the most high-profile forms of protest to assessments associated with Common Core, which participants say have contributed to a culture of over-testing. Tennessee currently has no policy on opting out, which means students who do not take standardized assessments may receive failing grades for them.

An email from the advocacy group Tennesseans for Student Success urged recipients to contact their representatives to express concern about Hill’s amendment. “This amendment,” the email read, “would deprive teachers, schools, and our state with the only way to know whether our students are improving each year. In addition, this amendment would remove accountability to Tennessee’s taxpayers, since assessments are the way to know whether our tax dollars are being used effectively.”

Hill, who has been a vocal critic of Common Core, said on the House floor that the email was inflammatory. “It is not my intent to take children backwards,” he said. “It is my intent always to empower parents.”

In other business Monday, the House passed two bills aimed at the Achievement School District (ASD), the state’s school turnaround program. Both measures were developed in consultation with state and ASD leaders.

One bill would require the state Department of Education to notify schools of their status if they fall in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools — one year before the state releases its priority list of worst-performing schools. Schools on the priority list are eligible for takeover by the ASD, which generally turns them over to charter school operators.

The other bill would prohibit the ASD from taking over schools that are meeting or exceeding expectations in student growth.

Both bills have been approved by the Senate and now go to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.