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.

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

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