Shelby County teachers on Monday packed a Memphis union hall, seeking answers amid confusion surrounding this year’s state achievement test scores and calling for greater transparency from the state over testing.

“It’s not that we are angry, colleagues,” outgoing president Keith Williams told fellow members of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association (MSCEA), prompting shouts of agreement from the crowd of more than 100 people. “It’s that we want to know! You need to be able to say you understand [the testing system], that you own it, so you can accept it.”

At least three state legislators and two school board members were in attendance.

The confusion began in late May when Tennessee educators in grades 3-8 received higher-than-expected “quick scores,” which are the preliminary achievement test scores that teachers are legally required to incorporate into final grades. State education officials followed up with letters to school directors explaining the state’s new calculation for quick scores, which no longer are tied to performance levels used for accountability. Therefore, a high quick score does not necessarily mean students are proficient or advanced.

The policy changes were made last fall, but were never communicated to local districts. State officials called the omission a mistake that arose from a turnover of personnel in Nashville.

Reaction to the quick score flap ranged from concern that students were misled about their performance to allegations that state officials had purposefully inflated scores to provide evidence that the state’s reform agenda is working.

Voicing their concerns with state officials, Shelby County educators offered another theory, suggesting that state officials are manipulating data in order to make more Memphis schools eligible for takeover by the state-run Achievement School District (ASD). Teachers said they felt more disconnected with the Department of Education than do their counterparts in Middle and East Tennessee.

“No other district has experienced what we have experienced!” said Rep. Karen Camp (D-Memphis) about the ASD, to uproarious applause.

A state official countered, however, that the disassociation between quick scores and performance levels has nothing to do with the ASD.

Assistant comissioner Nakia Towns traveled to Memphis Monday to clarify this year's test scores, and apologize for confusion.
PHOTO: C. Bauman
Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns clarifies changes behind this year’s test scores during remarks before educators in Memphis.

“This mistake occurred in my office. I have no agenda around the ASD,” said Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research.

Towns, who joined the department in January from Knox County Schools, agreed that more transparency is key. She stressed that the quick score formula was changed for grades 3-8 to be consistent with the state’s quick score formula for grades 9-12 — and requires “less mathematical gymnastics.”

The state launched a website last week to further explain the formulas and the purpose of quick scores.

Though the formula for quick scores has changed, the bar for proficiency has not changed, Towns said.

Throughout the meeting, Towns offered frequent apologies for the confusion and stayed longer than the hour-long program to answer questions.

Afterward, teachers said they appreciated Towns’ explanation — but that it didn’t sufficiently address their concerns around testing in Tennessee.

“I got a beautiful explanation of what I believe to be incorrect,” said Kenyon Cook, a teacher at Cromwell Elementary School. He said he and his students celebrated their quick scores, only to be told they don’t mean anything.

“I can’t think of a better way to say it,” he said. “It made kids, parents, teachers, feel stupid.”

Below are additional resources about quick scores shared by the Department of Education: