The Nation’s Report Card is out soon. Will Tennessee’s hot streak continue?

Tennessee celebrated historic gains on the Nation's Report Card in 2013.

The Nation’s Report Card has served as both a carrot stick and a kick in the pants to Tennessee in its quest to improve public schools.

The kick in the pants came first, when the state got called out in 2007 for the wide gap between how it was reporting student proficiency on its own tests versus what was showing up on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card.

The carrot stick came from 2011 to 2015 when, soon after a massive overhaul of K-12 education, Tennessee’s star shot up on the national assessment. Those substantial gains convinced state leaders to stick with their new policies — some of them controversial — with the aspiration of vaulting from the very bottom to the top half of states by 2019.

Now as NAEP prepares to release its 2017 report card on April 10, a lot of eyes are watching to see if Tennessee’s hot streak continues.

“Tennessee has had a lot of good news to celebrate. It’s come a long way,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “The trouble with NAEP scores, though, is that they never go up forever. We’ve seen this with other states that made big gains and then flattened out. If that happens in Tennessee, it will be disappointing.”

NAEP testing happens every two years, offering a biannual snapshot of student achievement and long-term trends. Because it is a national test, states can compare results with other states.

Most recently, the test was administered last year to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math in all 50 states, making it the largest national snapshot of what America’s students know and can do in various subjects. Those scores are being reported in the newest Report Card, albeit later than usual because of the assessment’s historic transition to online testing.

Tennessee has a lot riding on this year’s results.

The state enjoyed sizeable NAEP gains in 2013 in both subjects and in both grades, launching Tennessee’s claim as the fastest-improving state in the nation. Its performance was more modest in 2015, but the state still managed to hold its ground while scores across most of the nation dropped.

Last year, a massive national study at Stanford University seemed to bolster Tennessee’s claim based on standardized tests taken from students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015. The resulting map — showing high-growth districts in shades of green and low-growth districts in purple — depicts Tennessee as a bright green rectangle surrounded by a sea of purple.

State leaders acknowledge they can’t say for sure what’s behind Tennessee’s momentum, but they can easily identify the policy shifts that have happened in the last decade: higher academic standards, a new state test aligned to those expectations, and a gamut of systems to hold districts, schools, teachers, and students accountable.

“We believe our policy direction has moved us to a strong foundation to build on instructionally in our classrooms,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “The classroom instruction really matters, but the policies have set that up for success.”

Those policies include the controversial use of students’ standardized test scores in teacher evaluations — a key part of Tennessee’s game-winning plan in the 2009 Race to the Top competition, the U.S. Department of Education’s strategy for influencing states during the Obama administration. Tennessee leaders have dug in their heels on this policy, even as most of its teachers question the fairness and accuracy of their evaluations.

“Having a system of teacher evaluation and support that focuses on student growth has reinforced in all of us the need to row in the same direction,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

Whatever it is, “something appears to be working in Tennessee,” according to Petrilli.

Now the challenge is continuing that upward trajectory.

“It’s one thing to go from bad to good on NAEP. It’s quite another to go from good to great,” Petrilli said.

For leaders like Morrison, Tennessee’s 2017 performance doesn’t have to match its 2013 gains to legitimize the state’s improvement story.

“We know we’ve raised the bar in terms of our expectations for student achievement … but we’ve been in a significant transition,” she said. “Our hope is that, at a minimum, we’ll maintain our progress and show that those big gains since 2011 are real.”

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jessica Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”

Chalkbeat explains

Four reasons Tennessee likely won’t go back to paper testing

As another wave of problems with online testing plague Tennessee schools, one of the solutions proposed by state legislators — go back to paper exams — is a stretch for a state that has invested millions into electronic exams.

In short, reverting to pencil-and-paper tests would be akin to ordering iPhone users to go back to flip phones. It almost certainly won’t happen.

Two Memphis-area state lawmakers want to ban the online version of TNReady starting next school year until the state comptroller determines its problems are “fully and completely fixed.” And other lawmakers suggest districts should be able to choose between paper and electronic testing..

(Other amendments that would ensure this year’s test results wouldn’t count against teachers, students, or schools passed Thursday.)

The list of problems has grown since the first day of testing Monday, affecting about two dozen districts, including the four largest ones in Tennessee. The meltdown follows the monumental online failure in 2016 when a server crash prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most of state testing that year.

Here are four reasons why it’s unlikely Tennessee won’t go back to paper testing despite current overwhelming frustrations:

Superintendents think they’ve gone too far to turn back now. Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead cautioned against rash decisions in the heat of the moment.

“When things like this happen, it’s easy to overreact,” he told Chalkbeat. “But we’ve come too far. We know that online testing is the future. If we turn back, it will take a long time to get back to where we were.”

And school systems and counties have poured millions into infrastructure and devices, said Dale Lynch, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

“We don’t want to back up. We want to get it right, though,” he said.

Paper is more time consuming. With online testing, McQueen said Wednesday, “we can get test materials [and scores] back or to folks much quicker.”

Preparing paper tests requires hours of sorting and labeling exams. And if the materials arrive late, like they did for several districts this month because of severe weather at Questar’s printing center in the Northeast, the time crunch is especially stressful.

Granted, a top-notch online system that protects against cheating and hacking could be more expensive than a paper version, said Wayne Camara, the research chair at ACT who has long overseen test security.

“The issue of cost is relative.” he said. Multiple versions of computer tests are necessary to help safeguard against cheating, especially via social media.

“If you’ve having to produce 10 or 15 forms of a computer test, most likely it’s not cheaper.”

If Tennessee switches back to paper testing, it will be one of few states nationwide. A recent analysis by John Hopkins School of Education listed 11 states that were still using paper tests in 2016 for elementary students. For middle schools, it was nine states.

Nearly across the board, those states with no experience with online testing did worse in national online testing.

Read more about Tennessee’s most recent performance on “the nation’s report card.”

There’s security issues with paper too. The alleged cyber attack on Questar’s data center Tuesday spraked a statewide outcry, but switching back to paper won’t eliminate security issues.

“Both digital- and paper-based testing are certainly susceptible to cheating,” said Camara, the testing cybersecurity expert. “I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a significant reduction of security measures or cheating with computers, it’s just different.”

One of the largest state test cheating scandals happened in Atlanta with paper tests when principals and teachers changed student answers. That’s much harder to do online.

Jacinthia Jones and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.