Nation's Report Card

Two years after outsized gains, Tennessee’s scores on national exam are flat

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen is introduced in December 2014 as Tennessee's new education commissioner by Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee’s self-proclaimed status as having the “fastest-improving” students in the country is in jeopardy after the state posted flat scores on a national reading and math test.

The stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Education Performance, known as NAEP, come two years after Tennessee drew national attention for making outsized gains. But they also came as many states posted slight decreases on the exam, suggesting that Tennessee students had avoided pitfalls that other students had experienced.

Overall, Tennessee students are now on par with students across the nation in most areas of the assessment, known informally as “the nation’s report card” because it long has been the only way to compare students’ performance across states.

The results come five years after Tennessee legislators changed education policies to make the state eligible for federal Race to the Top funds. Gov. Bill Haslam cited those changes — which included adopting the shared Common Core standards and factoring student test scores into teacher evaluations — as reasons for the 2013 gains, and he said they are continuing to pay off today.

“A new set of fourth- and eighth-grade students proved that the gains we made in 2013 were real,” Haslam said. “Tennessee is distinguishing itself as the state to watch in education, and today’s announcement is a testament to all of the hard work put in day to day by our educators and students.”

How have Tennessee’s math scores changed?

During a call with reporters on Tuesday, Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen bristled at the characterization of this year’s scores as flat and argued that the new scores show that Tennessee’s academic ascendancy continues.

But Tennessee’s slight gains since 2013 were not statistically significant, and state officials later said it was not appropriate to describe the state as having higher scores.

Still, McQueen emphasized that Tennessee is on track to meet her goal of being in the top half of states in all four subjects by 2019. “Years ago, I’m not sure people would have thought that was possible,” she said.

U.S. students have taken the NAEP exams every two years since the early 1990s, in an effort to provide a consistent measure of student performance at a time when states’ standards varied widely.

Now, many states, including Tennessee, are in the process of adopting new tests that reflect shared standards, potentially allowing for more detailed and frequent comparisons of students across the nation. That means the test serves the dual role of comparing student performance across states and assessing whether states have achieved their goal of crafting more “accurate” measures of student achievement with their new exams.

Indeed, the gap between Tennessee students’ scores on the state’s own tests and their scores on NAEP was one factor that propelled state officials to adopt the Common Core standards and begin developing tests to measure whether students have met them. In recent years, the state removed questions from its existing tests that do not reflect the Common Core standards, but a test designed with the Common Core in mind won’t launch until 2016.

State officials have warned that scores are likely to fall sharply then, in line with what has happened in other states that have administered Common Core-aligned exams. The gap between Tennessee students’ NAEP and state test scores ranged from 10 percentage points in fourth-grade math to 25 points in eighth-grade math. Fifty-four percent of Tennessee eighth-graders met the state’s math proficiency bar, but just 29 percent achieved proficiency on the NAEP exam.

How have Tennessee’s reading scores changed?

Data source: NAEP Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

McQueen said the NAEP results point to areas where more work needs to be done, especially in fourth-grade reading, where just a third of Tennessee students passed NAEP’s proficiency bar. Only six states had lower scores.

Declining literacy scores were a dark spot on Tennessee’s otherwise sunny state test score report earlier this year, and McQueen has made reading the center of her new strategic plan for the state’s schools. McQueen said she expects that the plan — which includes a focus on early education and overhaul of teacher preparation programs — would help catapult Tennessee students’ reading scores on both the NAEP and state tests in the future.

“These scores shine a light on places we know we can improve,” she said. “We have to have renewed focus on all students’ reading abilities.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede