Tennessee soon will release district- and school-level scores from the state’s new, and supposedly harder, standardized test. And for many, the results will be grim.

While the State Department of Education released statewide scores last month, this week’s scores will provide the first look at how individual high schools and districts fared in the first year under the state’s new testing program, called TNReady.

The statewide scores showed far fewer high school students scoring on grade-level than in years past, though state officials have cautioned against comparisons. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen emphasized that drops in math, English and social studies are because the new tests for those subjects are harder and are aligned to more rigorous standards.

Tennessee is only releasing scores for high schools because end-of-year tests for middle and elementary schools were cancelled in April after a series of logistical and technical challenges. The testmaker, Measurement Inc., was fired.  

Here’s what you need to know about the new test scores, and how they will be used:

Scores are supposed to provide more accurate information about postsecondary readiness.

Statewide scores mirrored Tennessee’s ACT scores, which suggest that they more accurately reflect how ready students are for college. With more open-ended questions and fewer multiple-choice ones, TNReady and the state’s new social studies TCAP aim to measure critical thinking skills necessary to succeed after high school. The math and English tests also were aligned for the first time to the Common Core State Standards, which have been in all Tennessee classrooms since 2012 and are supposed to be geared more toward college readiness than previous benchmarks. (The state is rolling out revised standards based on the Common Core next school year.) Science scores are the exception, as the state won’t revamp science tests until new standards are phased in during the 2018-2019 school year.

Scores from this year and last year are apples and oranges.

Most schools will see declines in passing rates, but that doesn’t mean that the schools declined in quality. State officials emphasize that any big differences in scores are a reflection of the new test, not changes to the schools or districts.

But the state is still measuring growth.

Even though direct comparisons of test scores are invalid, they still can measure growth, say state officials.

As always, Tennessee is using its complicated value-added formula, which is supposed to show how much teachers contribute to individual student growth. In theory, the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, measures a student’s growth, but it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. This year, the state examined how students who scored at the same levels on prior assessments performed on TNReady in 2015-16. Students were expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement. If they performed better than their peers, no matter how their performance compares to last year’s, they will positively impact their teacher’s or school’s score.

Teachers can choose whether to count scores in teacher evaluation scores.

High school teachers can choose not to have TVAAS calculated with their 2015-16 evaluation scores if it doesn’t boost their overall score. Instead, they can use TVAAS from years past.

This year’s scores won’t be able to put schools on the state’s “priority school” list.

Schools on the state’s priority list — which identify those in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent — have been eligible for state takeover in recent years. But this year’s scores can’t land a school on that list. To address this year’s bumpy transition to TNReady, the State Department of Education plans to release two priority lists in 2017: one that includes available TNReady data from this year, and one that only includes data from the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years. A school must be on both priority lists to be eligible for state intervention.

The score reports will look different.

This year’s scores no longer will be categorized as advanced, proficient, basic or below basic. The state has rebranded performance levels as mastered, on-track, approaching grade level, and below grade-level. State officials also unveiled a redesigned score report this fall. It’s designed to help students, parents and educators understand better what the student scores say about their college readiness. The reports also will offer next steps for improvement.