Nation's Report Card

Like Tennessee’s NAEP scores, leaders’ script stays the same

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee's 2015 NAEP results.

Tennessee leaders and educators are ecstatic about the state’s 2015 scores on a set of national exams — even though the results were generally stagnant.

The state did manage to hold its ground while scores across most of the nation dropped in the National Assessment of Education Performance, known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card. But instead of speaking candidly about that modest accomplishment, Tennessee leaders and educators highlighted outperforming more states than ever before, particularly in fourth-grade math.

And because the flat scores contradict Tennessee’s self-proclaimed status as “fastest-improving state in the nation” in K-12 education, leaders focused on gains made since 2011 — riding on the coattails of the state’s 2013 performance when its students made some of the largest gains on all four subjects.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen celebrated the results at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, with the Cordova High School marching band offering a jubilant soundtrack in the background.

“Based on 2015 NAEP results, we are still the fastest-improving state in the nation since 2011,” Haslam told the crowd, which included Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and state representatives from the Memphis area.

“Since 2013, Tennessee has jumped past 12 other states in math,” McQueen added. “It is a big deal,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

How have Tennessee’s math scores changed?

Nearly 200 miles away, more than a hundred Tennessee principals watched a live-stream event from a leadership conference in Nashville. Though McQueen could not hear them, they cheered and clapped appreciatively throughout her remarks.

Barbara Frazier, principal of Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, said she was especially proud, since her school was one of only 200 across the state where students actually took the NAEP earlier this year in a representative sampling.

“We told the students, ‘It’s not on your shoulders; just show us what you can do!'” she said. “They showed us they were ready.”

An educator for 30 years, Gower said she has seen a lot of changes in Tennessee — foremost among them the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system with a detailed rubric. She credits the new system with the state’s academic gains.

“It’s made it easier to have intentional conversations about learning,” she said.

Attending the Cordova event, Karen Vogelsang, the 2014-2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, also cited policy changes as the reason Tennessee is outperforming more states.

“It shows that what’s going on the classroom is working,” said Vogelsang, a fourth-grade teacher for Shelby County Schools. “It shows the hard work that teachers are doing is paying off. … These are the students that have received that instruction related to [the Common Core] standards. It shows our teachers are teaching to those standards, and things are going up.”

How have Tennessee’s reading scores changed?

Data source: NAEP Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

In her remarks, McQueen thanked former state education commissioner Kevin Huffman, who was in attendance and who championed implementation of the Common Core and teacher evaluations during his tenure from 2011 to 2014.

“This moment is part of a relay,”  she said. “We take the baton from someone else and we move forward.”

Education leaders and advocates across the state chimed in words of congratulations, even if scores were flat. Taking their cues from Haslam and McQueen, many repeated that Tennessee is the fastest-improving state in the nation, a claim based on the sum of gains on all four tests in 2013. The NAEP does not recommend comparing tests directly, since grading scales differ.

“In 2013 Tennessee was the fastest-improving state, and the 2015 report card confirms that the 2013 gains were real and lasting,” said CEO Jamie Woodson of SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. “This year Tennessee students have, for the first time ever, reached the top 25 in one subject after sustained progress since 2011.”

Representing the State Board of Education, Executive Director Sara Heyburn said Tennessee “is clearly on the right track in creating an environment for student success with our focus on high expectations, rigorous standards, fewer, but better assessments, and more transparency and accountability for teachers in measuring our success.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said in a press release that the day the 2013 NAEP scores were released was one of the “greatest of his career.”

“The fact that we have maintained and built upon our success puts this day right next to it,” Ramsey said. “It is endlessly gratifying to see the policies and reforms we champion affect childrens’ lives in a meaningful way. Obviously, the true credit goes to the teachers, parents and children who made this possible.”

Although Tennessee typically ranked at the bottom of the nation prior to overhauling K-12 education in the last five years, researchers caution that NAEP results are only statements on how well a state’s students are doing on math and reading — not on the success of its policies.

“You should never think of NAEP, or even the state assessments, as a referendum on a particular package of policies or reforms,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Chalkbeat reporter Kayleigh Skinner contributed to this story.

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 cbaum[email protected]

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”