When LaRita Mitchell was a third-grade teacher, she often found her students were starting behind. They were just beginning to work with multiplication tables when the state’s standards assumed they’d already mastered them. They hadn’t yet encountered division.

“We noticed things that we thought were taught in second grade were not, and we could see a huge gap,” said Mitchell, who works at Sherwood Elementary in Memphis.

Then, Mitchell switched to teaching second grade, and she understood why her students’ had gaps in knowledge. “Second grade used to be more like first grade on steroids,” she said. “Third grade was a huge jump.”

This year, Mitchell’s second-graders are taking a new state standardized test aimed at keeping their students on track in reading and math. It’s shorter than the TNReady assessments that older students are taking but, like TNReady, it’s supposed to better gauge academic skills.  

State officials hope the new second-grade assessment, which is optional for districts, will provide valuable data to both second- and third-grade teachers. That data, they say, should help Tennessee reach its goal of getting 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

A lot of emphasis is put on third-grade tests. It’s the first year the state has test score data for all students, and research shows that if students are behind in third grade, it’s challenging to catch up.

Before this year, districts could administer the SAT-10, a Pearson-designed test that was not aligned to Tennessee’s standards. That bothered teachers, because SAT-10 tested things, like coordinated grids, that Tennessee teachers were not supposed to teach in the second grade, according to their standards.

“This is crazy,” Cindy Cliche remembers thinking about the SAT-10 tests when she taught second grade for Rutherford County Schools.

“That’s why I was so excited that the state was actually developing a test based on second-grade standards,” said Cliche, now a math coordinator for Murfreesboro City Schools. “ … I want a test that will truly give us information about our students.’”

In addition to being aligned with the state’s standards, Tennessee’s new Questar-administered test has similar questions to TNReady assessments for third- and fourth-graders. Those emphasize the types of literacy skills that the State Department of Education is pushing under its “Ready to be Ready” initiative. Just as with the SAT-10, the new test scores will be used to measure improvement in third grade that will be part of third-grade teacher evaluations.

Tennessee isn’t alone in finding early testing useful. Federal law doesn’t require annual testing until the third grade, but 35 states have some sort of test for younger students. Fifteen, including Tennessee, have a single statewide assessment for younger students, while other states allow districts to choose from a menu.

But unlike 29 other states, Tennessee doesn’t require districts to administer a test before third grade; districts decide whether to opt-in.

Still, nearly 100 districts — far more than half of Tennessee’s 146 — are using this year’s test, around double the districts that used the SAT-10 last school year.

Despite its national popularity, testing in early grades has a lot of critics. Younger students don’t have the same skillset as older ones when it comes to standardized testing, the critics say. In addition to the challenge of understanding the purpose of testing, younger students often can’t sit still as long and have a harder time holding pencils and bubbling in answers.

Mitchell says her students struggle with testing — but they do it all year, since Shelby County Schools, like many districts, also require MAP tests, which stand for Measurements of Academic Progress.

“You can only read a question one time. What happens if a child was asleep and didn’t catch it?” she said. “I had a little boy and he was out cold. He was like two to three questions behind. I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, what do you do?’”

The good news for sleepy students is that the state’s test is relatively short. And at Mitchell’s school, it will be administered in the morning, when students are more alert. Each part of the test is 40 minutes, and students take it spread across four days. Students can write their answers in the test booklet, rather than transferring them to a bubble sheet, like older students.

“They’ll probably think TNReady is a breeze coming off of the MAP testing,” Mitchell said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says that the test is designed not to be boring.

“They’re interesting questions, questions that require thinking, which makes it much more engaging for students,” she said.