measuring up

Decline in reading scores a dark spot in otherwise sunny test score trends

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam present statewide TCAP results for 2015 in early July. For the most part, scores went up statewide. But at individual schools, it can be hard to explain why.

Even as Tennessee students continued to make substantial gains in math and science this year, their reading test scores remain stubbornly low, state education officials announced Thursday.

And officials began to lay the groundwork for declines next year, when the state for the first time will administer a test that reflects the Common Core standards.

Just 48.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 passed the state’s proficiency bar in reading, down from a peak of 50.5 percent in 2013 and 49.5 percent last year.

The trajectory was very different in math, where 55.6 percent of students in grades 3-8 met the state’s proficiency standards this year. The 4.3 point single-year gain in math means that Tennessee students have increased their math proficiency rate by 21 points since 2010, in a shift that a national exam that compares student performance across states has borne out.

“We have a lot to celebrate in these results,” Gov. Bill Haslam said at a press conference in Nashville. “I also want to use these results to examine where we need to improve.”

(Here’s our preview of the new test scores and what they mean — and don’t mean.)

Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said they saw promising signs in higher-than-ever math scores, across-the-board high school gains, and a narrowing of the performance gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.

As he did last year, Haslam credited the gains to policy changes triggered by a 2010 state law called “First to the Top.” Those included adopting new standards, mandating the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and targeting resources to the neediest schools.

But he and McQueen said they could not explain why reading test scores had inched downward for the second year in a row and now are essentially the same as they were before any of the policy changes took place.

The fact that students with disabilities took the regular state exams, instead of an alternative test, for the first time this year  might have impacted literacy scores, but not much, McQueen said.

“We have a clear trend that has nothing to do with that,” she said.

She and Haslam did not announce any major policy changes to address the lagging literacy scores but did say that the state would focus more on English language learners, students with special needs, and early childhood education.

“We have seen reading scores remain relatively flat in early grades over the past five years, yet we know this is one of the most critical skills we can equip our students with for success in life,” McQueen said. “It’s our job to ensure that Tennessee students are prepared to take advantage of opportunities after graduation, and we must continue to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to reach all students.”

McQueen attributed gains by black, Hispanic, Native American, and poor students in all high school subjects and 3-8 math and reading to higher expectations and to a new program, called Response to Instruction and Intervention or RTI-squared, that is meant to ensure that schools reach their most struggling students.

“We’re seeing growth we expected to happen when you use RTI appropriately and you also begin to transition to what the belief of ‘all means all’ does to actually impact behavior,” she said.

High school scores had the most significant growth, suggesting that previous gains in elementary and middle school grades have begun to bear fruit.

The gains were sharpest for Algebra II, considered to be a make-or-break course for students’ future success in college. More than 54 percent of students in 2015 performed at or above grade level, compared to less than a third in 2011 and almost 48 percent last year.

McQueen said the advances could be tied to higher expectations. The state has ramped up efforts to graduate more students on time and has made college more attainable through Tennessee Promise, which allows graduating high school seniors to attend two years of community college for free.

“Our high school students see what’s next,” McQueen said. “They see the possibilities, and their ability to do that.”

McQueen said she expects to see test scores fall across the board next year, when the state transitions to TNReady, a Common Core-aligned test that is supposed to assess higher-order thinking skills and, unlike this year’s tests, will require students to provide their own answers rather than simply select from multiple choices.

The new test will more accurately reflect what students have learned, she said, adding that she expects to see growth after the first year. (Those trends have played out in most states that have already started giving tests that reflect the new standards.)

“Our upward trends as a state show a story of progress,” she said. “We know we have more work to do, but this is a great story for Tennessee.”

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.