Nation's Report Card

Tennessee’s performance slips in math on national test of student achievement

PHOTO: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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.

Mathematics

Reading

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.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: