Tennessee fourth-graders lost ground in a national mathematics test last year, the first decline since the state launched a massive overhaul of public education in 2009, according to results released Tuesday.
And fourth-graders’ performance in reading stayed mostly flat compared to 2013, when Tennessee’s scores spiked in both math and reading for fourth- and eighth-graders.
Eighth-grade scores stayed pretty much stagnant too in both subjects, based on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card.
The fresh data comes out every other year and is considered an important barometer of U.S. student achievement. It’s the only exam administered over a long period of time, capturing trends and allowing states to compare themselves against each other.
Tennessee’s showing from 2017 was disappointing, but state leaders said it was not all that surprising given that the testing happened during a year when the state was transitioning to new academic standards for math and reading, a new test called TNReady, and a revised system for holding schools and districts accountable under a new federal education law.
But it’s likely to lessen the national buzz on Tennessee, which had been on a hot streak for gains posted from 2011 to 2013 and for scores that held steady in 2015 when many other states saw declines.
The showing also makes it harder to move from the bottom to the top half of states in national rankings by 2019 — a goal that Tennessee’s Department of Education set in 2015 in its five-year strategic plan.
Tennessee now ranks 34th in both fourth-grade math and reading, 35th in eighth-grade math, and 38th in eighth-grade reading, based on the recent NAEP scores.
“We have moved from the 40s to solidly in the 30s,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters during a briefing on the eve of the results’ release. “We are still going to move to the top 25 of all states. The timeline may have to be shifted.”
Tennessee’s 2017 performance mostly mirrored national NAEP results, which barely budged over the last two years. But it was one of 10 states that saw a drop in scores for fourth-grade math, similar to the results of the last state-administered TNReady test.
McQueen said she’s confident that Tennessee has laid the foundation for improvement. What’s needed now, she said, is stability. The state has changed academic standards three times since 2009 and is trying to get TNReady testing right after two straight years of problems.
“Stability actually really matters in the coming years so we can start digging deeper,” she said. “We can’t keep changing standards and changing assessments and believe that we’re going to be able to go deeper into the foundation that we’ve set.”
"We can’t keep changing standards and changing assessments and believe that we’re going to be able to go deeper ..."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner
On a positive note: Tennessee’s NAEP results showed the same level of student proficiency as the state’s most recent test. That’s a big deal because it was the gap in state and national scores in 2007 — when Tennessee received an “F” in honesty from the U.S.Chamber of Commerce — that spurred state leaders to revamp public education with the help of the federal Race to the Top award.
“While we know there’s much to do, we have finally closed the honesty gap,” McQueen said. “We believe if that study was run today, that we would receive an A for finally telling the truth about what our state test now measures compared to what NAEP measures.”
Last year was also the first year that Tennessee’s largest school district participated in a special NAEP test for urban districts along with 26 other school systems. You can read more about the first year of results for Shelby County Schools here.
Facing potential loss of control, Adams 14 wants to show the state how the district might improve
In meeting after meeting in recent weeks, Adams 14 district leaders repeated the sad statistics about their district’s shortcomings, from poor attendance to low state test scores.
Acknowledging those problems and talking about the district’s failures is taking a toll on staff and on the community. But district leaders hope that by being open they can keep some control over a situation in which they might ultimately end up with none.
Adams 14, a district of about 7,500 students north of Denver, has a hearing before the Colorado State Board of Education on Wednesday at which state officials must decide what steps to order Adams 14 to take to try to finally improve the struggling district.
Among the board’s most extreme options, they could choose to dissolve the local district and start a process to combine it with neighboring districts. A review panel has recommended a different, but potentially also drastic option: to turn over management of the district and its schools to an outside group.
For more on the state’s options as it decides the fate of Adams 14, click here.
Such a takeover has never happened in Colorado, and it’s not clear exactly what that would look like. Colorado law does not allow for the complete state takeover that has happened in other states, but whatever comes next will represent a new chapter for Adams 14, its control over its schools, and its relationship with the community.
There are varying degrees of authority that the district could be forced to give up. The local Adams 14 school board has pushed district staff to write a proposal that leans towards the more extreme end of the scale, giving up more control than has happened before. The proposal was finalized this week, but given how quickly the district had to create it, there are still missing details that might answer questions about what the plan would mean for Adams 14 staff and students.
For now, what is known is that Adams 14 is proposing to hire two external managers. One would oversee district systems and would have authority over the superintendent, but would still answer to the existing, locally elected Adams 14 board. The second external manager would be hired specifically for Adams City High School, the district’s lowest performing school, which is facing state intervention itself. That manager would have authority over the principal and staff and would answer directly to the Adams 14 board, not the superintendent.
“The district does need help,” Barb McDowell, the district’s union president acknowledges. “We just hope whoever is chosen to be the external manager allows us to remain local and public.”
If the state board allows the district to try its proposed plan, a lot of what comes next could depend on who the district hires as that outside manager.
The district would go through a bidding process that could start as soon as next week to vet outside groups.
But at least some people, including Bill Hyde, one of the Adams 14 board members, question whether the district should make that selection.
“If the conclusions of the state review panel and the results of the community survey … are accurate and valid regarding Adams 14’s insufficient leadership, vision, and sense of urgency, it seems incredible (that is, not credible) or at least misguided, to ask that same leadership to provide a plan for the district’s future,” Hyde wrote. “I encourage the [State Board of Education] to reserve for itself the decision of selecting an external manager.”
Another option Hyde and teachers union members are supporting would be to select the neighboring district of Mapleton Public Schools as the external manager. Mapleton serves about 9,000 students in a model that requires all students to choose their school and has a state rating of “improvement,” which is one rating above Adams 14’s. This option cedes control but not to a charter organization.
“I have not heard or seen any other proposal that comes close to this one in terms of efficacy, likelihood of success, and simplicity of operation and management,” Hyde wrote. “Choice is something that our community wants, and a portfolio management model would fit our needs in that regard.”
And, Hyde pointed out, it is supported by the teachers union and the community. Yvonne Bradford, director of Central Adams Uniserv, a collection of teachers unions, sent Hyde an outline of Mapleton’s interest. District officials confirmed their interest.
Bradford wrote that Mapleton’s superintendent “wants to help Adams 14 get systems and structures in place. She wants to collaborate with parents and staff at each school to see what kind of school they want and then help make that happen.”
She added: “She does not want a precedent set that outside private money comes into Colorado, takes the money, and the district is no better off when they leave.”
When Adams 14 officials asked experts from the state education department for examples of what external management could look like, one example they pointed to was the turnaround of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
The 33-school district in the suburbs of Boston became the first in that state to face state control. In 2012, the state appointed a “receiver” who took over the duties of the district’s superintendent and local governing board.
That appointed leader answered directly to the state commissioner of education and was given authority to bypass the district’s union contract, including to expand the school day and year, change teacher pay, and fire some district staff.
With that oversight, the district partnered with five groups to run six of the lowest performing schools in the district. The partners included the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union group, and some charter schools. The district also contracted with several additional groups that provided more specific resources such as after-school programs or teacher training. The district slowly gave all schools more autonomy and flexibility.
Research on the effects of that turnaround are mixed, although some say it is one of the better examples of a successful district turnaround. Test scores did rise soon after the changes and graduation rates have improved, but some challenges remain. The state is now in the process of transitioning control back to a local board.
Brett Alessi, who helped lead that work and is co-founder of Empower Schools, says that the work outside groups do isn’t special, but can help change the discussions — and the urgency — around change.
“Everything we did in Lawrence, a superintendent and school board can do, the question is why aren’t they doing these things,” Alessi said. “It’s just hard for them. That threat of real action can be a motivator to think about new changes as opposed to just bringing in a new superintendent or a new curriculum.”
Domingo Morel, a political scientist who criticizes state takeovers of school districts from his research on the political impact for local communities, says the key is for state officials to work with communities to empower them instead of taking away their voice.
“Usually when you have a third-party organization, you’re just shielding them from democratic pressure,” Morel said. “When you have communities that want to have a say, those avenues are not there for them, then it becomes highly problematic.”
And, he said, local communities must work together.
“Looking at the state for a solution is probably not going to work,” Morel said. “Based on history, it’s not likely.”
In Adams 14, rising tensions around the state’s possible actions and the upcoming vote on the proposed KIPP school have divided the community.
Many parents who are supportive of KIPP — and drastic state actions — have shied away from the public process after, they say, teachers have confronted them about their views. But other community members, including Timio Archuleta, who stepped away from the school board president role this summer, have criticized parents who “only want to complain” but don’t get involved in their schools.
This year, state officials have sought more public feedback for the State Board’s decision. The district has also held several meetings with different community members and groups to gather feedback.
A group of education advocates this week signed a report that includes a list of recommendations for the district and state to consider as they decide on the fate of Adams 14. Among those recommendations, they ask that the district be pushed to continue to engage the community throughout the process, and to develop systems to better communicate to families their students’ expectations.
Morel said all voices are important in the process for improving schools, but he said the idea that some people don’t care is a myth.
“As parents, we are concerned for our child that particular year,” Morel said. “That voice is more likely to be in favor of a short-term fix. Community organizations that are concerned not just about this year, but 10 years from now, that voice is also important in the conversation.”
Check out the district’s prepared presentation to the state, below, and the full concept paper, here.
Next week, the board will decide the fate of a handful which have already failed to meet those deadlines. That includes the Adams 14 school district and its high school, Adams City, and two Pueblo schools: Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy.
Legally, the state lacks authority to take over a district or school, and has limited options in what it can order a district or school to do. The board will consider recommendations from a state review panel, progress reports from the Department of Education, and proposals from school districts.
This option would allow a third party, either public or private, to manage a school, a set of district operations, or the entire district. The managing group could have varying levels of authority to make decisions.
Adams 14 district: Recommended. “The current cabinet-level leaders are showing some signs of increased awareness around the need for dramatic change; however, it is clear they need the support and guidance.”
Adams City High School: Recommended. “ACHS needs an external partner that will provide leadership development and support, coaching, ongoing professional development, and talent management, in addition to increasing the instructional support BT is providing. Currently, there is no structure to support the development of leadership capacity to effectively lead the turnaround work at ACHS.”
Heroes Middle School: Continue an existing partnership and add another. “The partnership with [Achievement Network] has not been implemented with fidelity as directed by the State Board. Additional clarity around the role of the partner and the district is needed.” The current partnership is not sufficient, the panel wrote.
Risley International Academy: Continue an existing partnership and add another. The current partner, Achievement Network, does not have decision-making authority, and the school’s leadership is “demonstrably lacking.”
The state can direct a school or district to submit a plan to grant them “innovation” status that frees them from some state laws, district rules or union contracts — to remove barriers to improvement or to execute creative ideas. A school must have a plan for what it will do if given freedom not to follow those rules, and the school’s community must approve the plan.
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. “The district has neither adequate leadership capacity nor the infrastructure to support innovation.”
Adams City High School: Not recommended. Innovation could provide some benefits to alleviate constraints the teacher contract currently poses, but “there is minimal evidence” to indicate that the school “has a readiness for innovative approaches or practices that would result in benefits.”
Heroes Middle School: Recommended. Innovation status has created time for group planning time by extending the teacher workday and adding professional development days.
Risley International Academy: Recommended. The district’s group of innovation schools meet monthly and provide support for each other.
Conversion to a charter
The State Board may choose to order one or more schools to be converted to a charter school, which are public schools run by independent boards.
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. The district is not interested in a charter school. “Although a charter would provide options for students, which parents and community members have expressed they would like, the lack of consistency in leadership would make it challenging to adequately plan, implement, and support a charter.”
Adams City High School: Not recommended. “There is limited support for this from the district and the community because ACHS is the only comprehensive high school in the district.”
Heroes Middle School: Not recommended. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change,” and there is no evidence the community would support a charter.
Risley International Academy: Not recommended. Although strongly considering this option, the panel felt “a charter school may be divisive to the community and would not result in more effective outcomes.”
The State Board may require one or more schools to close, gradually or immediately. The board also can ask that a school stop serving, for instance, just a specific grade level. A closure can be combined with a requirement to open a new school.
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. Because seven of the 11 schools are underperforming, closing them would leave many students without other school options. Schools are already over capacity.
Adams City High School: Not recommended. This is the district’s only comprehensive high school, so there would be no other place for students to attend high school nearby.
Heroes Middle School: Not recommended. “It does not appear that there are better options for middle school students within a reasonable distance.”
Risley International Academy: Not recommended. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes.”
For school districts, this state option would change their boundaries and merge it with neighboring districts. One or more neighboring districts could take take over portions of the district being dissolved.
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. The panel gave “serious consideration” to this
option, but because district reorganization procedures are less clear, the panel felt the district would need help from an outside partner to achieve this.