Calling Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores a “true ethical and moral dilemma,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is rolling out a pair of initiatives to boost students’ literacy skills, starting even before they enter school.

Under McQueen’s plan, educators across the state will get additional training about how to teach reading, support from a growing fleet of literacy coaches, and insights from new standardized tests. In addition, state agencies will team up to grapple with the realities that cause many poor children to start kindergarten without basic literacy skills.

The plan is the state’s response to a persistent and disturbing trend: Even as Tennessee’s steadily climbing math and science results have garnered national attention, reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged. This year, 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.

“This is a true ethical and moral dilemma,” McQueen said. “Reading allows students to see the world through books, through texts, through information they would otherwise not have access to.”

Shelby County Schools in Memphis and the state-run Achievement School District have announced their own plans to tackle low reading scores. But the state’s plan — McQueen’s first major initiative since starting her work as commissioner early this year — is the most sweeping.

Under Ready to Read, focused on children from infancy to second grade, the Department of Education will partner with other state agencies to ensure that children who enter kindergarten in Tennessee are already primed to learn to read. Then, Read to be Ready will help educators prepare students in grades 3 and higher for overhauled state exams that will require stronger reading skills than ever.

The early literacy initiative — which McQueen unveiled in a meeting with teachers last month — is new for the state education department. First lady Crissy Haslam has made the issue her top advocacy priority since her husband, Gov. Bill Haslam, took office in 2011. But state education leaders had not focused on the issue until now.

Though details aren’t complete, McQueen hopes to work with other state agencies in the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, which consists of the heads of the departments of children’s services, education, health, human services and mental health, to provide parents and caretakers with more resources about reading from the get-go. The Department of Education will work to create and implement higher standards for literacy in both public pre-kindergarten programs and private childcare centers, so more people are aware of what it means to be ready for kindergarten, and more children actually are.

Together, the coordination aims to ensure that students are not held back by their home environments and early experiences with literacy.

Studies have found that children who are raised in literacy-rich environments, where parents speak in complex sentences and expose them to the written word, enter kindergarten knowing more words and more ready to start reading.

Candice McQueen
Candice McQueen

McQueen said such research has informed her planning. “The sheer gap of words a kindergartener knows is evident immediately,” she said.

The department also is developing tools to help schools and teachers assess the literacy skills of students who are too young to take the state’s required reading exam, which is first administered in third grade. One tool will help kindergarten teachers understand their students’ literacy skills before they enter the classroom. A second, an optional standardized test, will measure skills of children in kindergarten through second grades.

The new assessments come at a time when testing faces growing criticism in Tennessee and across the nation. But McQueen, who appointed a task force to study whether Tennessee students spend too much time on testing, said the tests are meant to give educators what they say they want.

“When I was going across the state as part of (my) tour, it was striking the number of times I heard a teacher say, ‘I really need better information about how my students are performing before they get into third grade,’” McQueen said.

David Dickinson, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education who studies early childhood literacy, cautioned that a test that actually will provide teachers with the nuanced knowledge they need — like the breadth of a child’s vocabulary or their ability to follow a story — would be hard to create and administer.

“I haven’t seen any mass-administered tests in school districts that are effective in measuring those skills,” he said.

The department has to pick a different test; its current option for testing lower grades is being phased out by Pearson this year. The department will accept and review applications for the new test in the coming months.

“This will be better in that it will actually meet the Tennessee standards,” McQueen said of the current Common Core State Standards.

Students in grades 3-8 will also begin taking tests this school year that reflect the standards, which are now in their third year of full implementation. To mark the shift, the state is renaming its testing program, swapping the TCAP acronym for TNReady, and preparing educators and families for lower scores.

The new tests — and the standards that they will assess — underlie the second prong of McQueen’s literacy initiative. Ready to Read includes a slate of strategies to help teachers prepare students for more complicated reading passages and questions that require strong comprehension skills to answer.

“We know that the reading content on TNReady will be more rigorous texts than students have had in the past,” McQueen said.

In addition to providing educators across the state with materials to help them prepare students for the new test, officials plan to expand literacy instruction courses that the state launched in 2013.

The goal, McQueen said, is to double the number of teachers participating in the courses, from 7,000 to 14,000 by December 2016.

McQueen said she envisions using literacy coaches across the state to model lessons for teachers and help them create lesson plans. Districts that don’t already have coaches will have the option to get help using their existing staff to support teachers in their classrooms, she said. Since the planning period is ongoing, the price tag of the initiative is unclear, but officials hope that by using existing literacy coaches and staff members, it will be minimal.

State officials are already at work rewriting literacy standards for teacher preparation programs, not just for the early grades, elementary and middle school teachers, but for high school English teachers, as well as special education and teachers who teach English Language Learners.

“We want more of our teachers to understand the art and science of reading,” McQueen said.