Every two years, a sampling of Tennessee fourth- and eighth-graders join students across the nation in taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a critical measure of academic progress that’s released as the Nation’s Report Card.

In Tennessee, the testing window for reading and math began last week and will continue into March. The results will be highly anticipated. NAEP data has been a boon to Tennessee, which has posted some of the nation’s biggest gains twice in a row for reading and math, in 2013 and 2015, as well as in science in 2016.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wants Tennessee to be in the top half of states for all tested grade levels by 2019. In 2015, it crossed that threshold for fourth-grade math, and in 2016 came in 19th and 21st for fourth- and eighth- grade science, respectively.

State Board of Education Chairman B. Fielding Rolston is also a member of the NAEP National Governing Board. He sat down with Chalkbeat recently to discuss his role, and why he thinks NAEP is important.

You’re on the national governing board for NAEP. What does that entail?

B. Fielding Rolston

It’s really an interesting board. It’s about 30 members, and it’s set up by U.S. Congressional action. We have specified slots. You have a Democratic governor and a Republican governor, and you have one slot for a state school board member, which I fill. You’ve got testing experts, psychometricians, state legislators. It’s quite a diverse group and the discussions are great.

There’s a real focus on making sure that NAEP is done in a very legitimate, very credible manner. There’s an incredible amount of emphasis on maintaining the gold standard of assessment and making sure that the quality is what it needs to be so Congress and the nation can really understand where the nation is on education.

How do you use NAEP as chairman of Tennessee’s State Board?

I remember very vividly a discussion we had on the State Board in 2008 or 2009. (We compared) the NAEP results and the results we were getting on our Tennessee state assessments, and it was obvious that there was an enormous difference. The questions was: How come we have poor results on NAEP and good results on the state assessments? The (State) Department of Education couldn’t provide a good answer. That really drove the conversations about increased expectations and (the academic standards known as) the Tennessee Diploma Project. (NAEP’s) big contribution is increasing expectations and (making us say) that we really believe our students can compete with students across the country.

A focus of the Tennessee Department of Education, and by extension the State Board of Education, has been on “all means all,” meaning that the state must provide the same opportunities and have the same expectation for students regardless of race, gender or economic status. How does NAEP fit into that goal?

A good example is the results we just got out of the NAEP science assessments. It demonstrated we’ve got the fastest improving results on the science assessments — and that we eliminated the gender gap between boys and girls, and that we really closed the gap between racial minorities and all other students. (NAEP scores) really illustrated that we are closing gaps.

What would you like to tell Tennessee students sitting down to take NAEP this spring?

They are representing Tennessee in this effort, and we want them to do their best. They don’t get an individual score, but they are the representative of what’s happening in classrooms in Tennessee. NAEP has proven to be an excellent example of getting Tennessee started in the direction…we needed to go in, and it is a great barometer for whether we’re making progress or not. It is to a large extent the yardstick we’re using to gauge our progress.