Scores in

UPDATED: Urban districts score below statewide averages on new TNReady tests, with some bright spots

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

A new test hasn’t changed which Tennessee school districts are the top performers, and which districts struggle relative to the state as a whole.

The Tennessee Department of Education on Tuesday released district- and school-level TNReady scores from last school year while unveiling a redesigned online report card. The rollout follows last month’s release of statewide scores showing that the vast majority of high school students aren’t on track to be prepared for college. The new scores are only for high school students since Tennessee canceled its 3-8 tests in April following a series of technical and logistical snafus.

Across the state, scores were significantly down — a drop that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had warned was inevitable in the transition to more rigorous tests, designed to give a better snapshot of students’ readiness for college and career. The exception is science scores. The state is retaining older, easier tests for those subjects until new standards are phased in during the 2018-19 school year.

As in years past, most urban districts, which typically have a higher concentration of students from low-income households, had lower passing rates than the state as a whole on the 12 end-of-course tests.

McQueen reiterated Tuesday that educators shouldn’t be discouraged by the scores. “These scores show a student’s potential trajectory,” she said. “They are not a student’s destiny.”

While nearly three-quarters of students statewide and in urban districts failed most tests, Williamson County, an affluent suburb of Nashville, had a relatively even distribution of students scoring across the four levels. Still, scores for urban districts hewed close to the state’s in many instances, and in some cases, urban students did better than their statewide peers. Three out of Tennessee’s four urban districts received high growth marks in literacy, suggesting that their students are on track to catch up with higher-performing school systems.


Read Chalkbeat’s guide to understanding this year’s TNReady scores.


The performance of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district, lagged considerably compared to the state, with only 6.8 percent of students scoring on or above grade level in Algebra I, compared to 20.8 percent statewide. The gaps were smaller for English exams.

Students in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the second largest district, beat out statewide trends in Integrated Math II, where 28 percent of students passed compared to 23.8 percent statewide. Nashville shifted to Integrated Math — an alternative to Algebra I, II and Geometry — in 2015. Otherwise, the district’s scores also lagged the state’s as a whole.

Students in Knox County Schools, the third-largest district, outperformed the state as a whole on some of the new tests, with the widest margin in U.S. History. But, as was the case in virtually all districts, scores in Knox County were significantly down from last year’s across the board. Although the rebooted report card was supposed to be easier to understand, the district released an inaccurate statement on Tuesday morning that Knox County saw marked improvement.

In Hamilton County Schools, where one Chattanooga high school is among Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent and eligible for state takeover, passing rates for some subjects were within 1 percentage point of statewide scores, although none were above.

The gaps between statewide performance and the Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district with three high schools in Memphis, were among the largest. No ASD high school students scored at the highest level on the Algebra II exam, and less than 1 percent scored on grade level, compared to 2.6 percent and 21.4 percent of students scoring at each respective level statewide.

The state gave Shelby County, Metro Nashville, Hamilton County and the ASD the highest possible score for growth in literacy. For that measure, the state uses the complex Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which measures how students performed relative to how other students performed at the same level on past tests.  Knox County received a 3 out of 5 on literacy, but was the only district with a 5 in growth in numeracy.

Combatting Tennessee’s low literacy rate has been a state priority in recent years, and most districts have initiated their own reading improvement programs.

“While we would love to have 5s in all areas, our emphasis on literacy shows we can make positive gains,” said Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga. “Now we need to put the same emphasis on mathematics and science.”

McQueen said many districts struggled with growth in math because the test was so different. For the first time, calculators were prohibited for some questions.

“The depth of what the expectation was in terms of problem-solving … was very different,” she said. “When you take (the calculator) away, that’s going to be a real adjustment, a real change.”

The Department of Education has published an annual report card since the early 1990s to provide an overview of state, district and school-level performance. The new online report card was designed to help educators and families better understand information about their schools.

 “This new report card is easier to use and has better information about whether our students are academically on track, both of which will help parents, educators, district leaders, and advocates support our students’ success,” McQueen said in a news release. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include growth scores and comments from state and district leaders.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.