in limbo

Theme of Tennessee’s testing task force meeting: ‘We’re in a transition phase’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen presents information about possible changes to the state's accountability system at the second meeting of this year's testing task force.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen made her sentiments perfectly clear during the June meeting of her testing task force on Tuesday. “We’re in a transition phase,” she told attendees at least five times during the five-hour meeting in Nashville.  

She was referring both to the new federal education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, and to upheaval that has swept the state’s testing program since she first convened the task force last fall in response to growing criticism of the role of testing across Tennessee. Widespread problems with the state’s vaunted new exam, TNReady, prompted Tennessee to cancel the test for most students, end its contract with test creator Measurement Inc., and open a search for a new test maker.

That search is supposed to conclude by July 1, less than three weeks away. But state education officials did not provide updates during Tuesday’s meeting of the 21-member task force, which includes educators, state leaders and elected officials.

Instead, the meeting focused on how the state will reshape its accountability system in light of ESSA, which gives states new freedom to change what their tests and teacher evaluations look like and encourages states to look at metrics beyond test scores to evaluate school quality. The Department of Education announced a tour last month to collect feedback on how it should use those new freedoms.

McQueen reported that superintendents already have spoken up during the listening tour to say that they need stability and consistency in the next iteration of Tennessee’s accountability system — something that has been lacking during the state’s standards and testing transitions.

The task force looked at other metrics that could be incorporated into the accountability system. Members also reviewed models from other states, including California, which surveys social-emotional skills and school culture as part of its accountability system; and New Jersey, which reports the percentage of students enrolled in arts courses on its school report cards.

Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns was quick to remind task force members that the future of Tennessee’s accountability system remains open.

“These are just examples,” she stressed. “We’re not advocating for or against them.”

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.