Testing Testing

Because of 100 percent passing rate, Tennessee creates new social studies test

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

This year, not a single Tennessee student failed their social studies or history assessment — even though more than half of students statewide failed exams for most other subjects.

State officials now say that the 100 percent passing rate is caused by score inflation and lax standards rather than social studies prowess. In coming school years, they hope that won’t be the case.

After more than a decade of neglect, the state has revamped social studies standards and the assessments that go with them. This year, students will take redesigned tests based on those standards, and the passing rate will probably drop. Because the standards are new, the test won’t impact students’ grades or be counted on schools’ 2014-2015 report card.

“In assessment design, there are lots of different decisions that affect the rigor and difficulty of the test and that affect the ultimate scoring,” said Emily Barton, the assistant commissioner of education in charge of the social studies revamp. Neither the cut scores–the minimum number of questions a student needs to answer correctly to pass the test– nor the standards had been revisited in more than a decade. If the cut score is too low, students can pass a test just by randomly guessing on every question.

“(The new test is) just going to be more rigorous because of the new standards, so consequently, I think it makes sense to expect that the rate of students scoring proficient or advanced will more than likely drop,” said Jared Myracle, a Gibson County Special School System administrator and former history and social studies teacher who helped develop the new standards. “I hope what happens, if and when scores decline, is that people would say, ‘Why did this happen? I hope that they’d look at the standards and realize that we can’t expect to perform 100 percent on an assessment that actually includes meaningful skills.”

The new standards are aligned to applicable literacy Common Core standards, and focus on analysis and making connections between different areas and time periods, and less on memorization, Myracle said. (The standards are not Common Core though — those standards are only for literacy and math.)

“Social studies will have to be much more than students gathering information from taking notes,” he said. “It should be a much more involved class, engaging with primary sources, speeches, and documents.”

The last time social studies standards, which apply to social studies in kindergarten through eighth grade and history and geography classes in high school, were updated was in 2002. Usually, standards are updated every six years but in 2008, in the midst of a math and literacy standards overhaul, social studies was overlooked, Myracle and Barton said. The TCAP for social studies and history was shorter than ones for other subjects, and cut scores ensured most students would pass.

That made social studies teachers feel their subject gets short shrift, said Mark Finchum, a social studies teacher at Jefferson County High School and the head of the Tennessee Council for Social Studies. Federal education guidelines tied to initiatives like Race to the Top focus on math and literacy, which often causes social studies to be almost entirely overlooked in younger grades, where schools focus on the exams whose results keep them open.

“At the beginning, when they first started all that testing, I was glad I didn’t have to do it,” Finchum said. “I was glad I was able to do what I needed to do, and not have to worry about all that other stuff,” he said, referring to standardized test preparation. But then, he said, he was faced with a common criticism of the accountability movement: whatever is tested is focused on more by administrators and students.

“That is why I’d like to see social studies get a good (End of Course) type of assessment,” Finchum said. “So that we can see social studies valued on the level that it should be.”

State officials also felt social studies was not getting a fair shot, and in 2012, began the process of making standards more rigorous. A task force studied standards from states considered to have the best. The new standards were adopted  by the board of education in 2013.

“Teachers from across the state for years had been telling us that they wanted us to look at the social studies standards,” Barton said. She pointed to the fact that far more students were proficient in U.S. History than English III. Students take both exams their junior year of high school. The majority fail English.  “So we knew there were a different level of expectations,” she said.

The Tennessean recently reported that Metro Nashville Schools was one of a handful of school systems across the state not buying new social studies textbooks, in favor of teacher-chosen online materials, although they said cost was not a factor. Tullahoma City Schools began to experiment with open-source social studies textbooks, online texts that can be easily updated, in 2013.

Social studies courses have also been restructured. For example, ninth graders used to be able to choose either geography, which includes more current events, or world history in the ninth grade. Now, both classes are combined into one.

Social studies teachers’ Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, scores should not be impacted by the shift in standards and assessments, since TVAAS is computed according to statewide trends.

Myracle said the change will ensure that a student doesn’t totally miss one subject or the other. Finchum is concerned with that shift, though, saying that he would prefer his students get a deeper understanding of one subject, rather than a shallow understanding of either.

Regardless, Finchum is always happy to see social studies appreciated, he said.

“Where do you learn about citizenship?” he said.  “Not in math class.”

The updated standards can be found here.

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.

District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.


Most Memphis schools score low on student growth under new state test

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

More than half of Memphis schools received the lowest possible score for student growth on Tennessee’s new test last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, about 54 percent of the district’s 187 schools scored in the bottom rung of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

That includes most schools in the Innovation Zone, a reversal after years of showing high growth in the district’s prized turnaround program.

Charter schools fared poorly as well, as did schools that were deemed among the state’s fastest-improving in 2015.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the scores a “huge wakeup call.”

“It shows that we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Monday. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating. … It starts with making sure we’re supporting teachers around mastering the new standards.”

District leaders across Tennessee have been trying to wrap their heads around the latest growth scores since receiving the data in late August from the State Department of Education. Only two years earlier, the Memphis district garnered the highest possible overall growth score. But since then, the state has switched to a harder test called TNReady that is aligned for the first time to more rigorous academic standards.

TVAAS results are scheduled to be released publicly this week, but Chalkbeat obtained a copy being circulated within Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

The data is prompting questions from some Memphis educators — and assurances from state officials — over the validity of TVAAS, the state’s system for measuring learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools.

This is the first year of issuing district-wide TVAAS scores since 2015. That’s because of the state’s cancellation of 2016 testing for grades 3-8 due mostly to failures in the switch to online testing.

Some educators wonder whether the bumpy switch to TNReady is a factor in this year’s nosedive, along with changes in how the scores are calculated.

For example, data for fourth-graders is missing since there is no prior state testing in third grade for comparison. Elementary and middle schools also don’t have growth scores for social studies, since the 2017 questions were a trial run and the results don’t count toward a school’s score.

Hopson acknowledged concerns over how the state compares results from “two very different tests which clearly are apples and oranges,” but he added that the district won’t use that as an excuse.

“Notwithstanding those questions, it’s the system upon which we’re evaluated on and judged,” he said.

State officials stand by TVAAS. They say drops in proficiency rates resulting from a harder test have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores, since all students are experiencing the same change.

“Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools is not the only district with disappointing TVAAS results. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools logged low growth scores. But Gast said that more districts earned average or high growth scores of 3, 4 or 5 last school year than happened in 2015.

Want to help us understand this issue? Send your observations to tn.tips@chalkbeat.org

Below is a breakdown of Shelby County’s TVAAS scores. A link to a school-by-school list of scores is at the bottom of this story.


School-wide scores are a combination of growth in each tested subject: literacy, math, science and social studies.

Fifty three schools saw high growth in literacy, an area where Shelby County Schools has doubled down, especially in early grades. And 51 schools saw high growth in math.

Note: A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year. A score of 1 represents significantly lower academic growth compared to peers across the state.


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 101 54%
2 19 10%
3 20 11%
4 10 5%
5 37 20%


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 58 28%
2 16 8%
3 38 19%
4 18 9%
5 75 37%

Innovation Zone

Out of the 23 schools in the district’s program to turn around low-performing schools, most received a growth score of 1 in 2017. That stands in stark contrast to prior years since the program opened in 2012, when most schools were on a fast growth track.

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 14
2 2
3 2
4 0
5 5

Reward schools

Nearly half of 32 schools deemed 2015 Tennessee reward schools for high growth saw a major drop in TVAAS scores in 2017:

  • Central High
  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Germanshire Elementary
  • KIPP Memphis Middle Academy
  • Kirby High
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary
  • Power Center Academy High
  • Power Center Academy Middle
  • Ross Elementary
  • Sheffield High
  • South Park Elementary
  • Southwind High
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Westside Elementary

Charter schools

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools fared similarly to district-run schools in growth scores, with nearly half receiving a TVAAS of 1 compared to 26 percent of charter schools receiving the same score in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 18
2 6
3 7
4 2
5 7


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 10
2 2
3 7
4 3
5 16

Optional schools

Half of the the district’s optional schools, which are special studies schools that require students to test into its programs, received a 1 on TVAAS. That’s compared to just 19 percent in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 23
2 6
3 5
4 2
5 10


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
2 5
3 6
4 5
5 14

You can sort through a full list of TVAAS scores for Shelby County Schools here.