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.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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