Nation's Report Card

Tennessee’s performance slips in math on national test of student achievement

PHOTO: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Tennessee fourth-graders lost ground in a national mathematics test last year, the first decline since the state launched a massive overhaul of public education in 2009, according to results released Tuesday.

And fourth-graders’ performance in reading stayed mostly flat compared to 2013, when Tennessee’s scores spiked in both math and reading for fourth- and eighth-graders.

Eighth-grade scores stayed pretty much stagnant too in both subjects, based on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card.

The fresh data comes out every other year and is considered an important barometer of U.S. student achievement. It’s the only exam administered over a long period of time, capturing trends and allowing states to compare themselves against each other.

Tennessee’s showing from 2017 was disappointing, but state leaders said it was not all that surprising given that the testing happened during a year when the state was transitioning to new academic standards for math and reading, a new test called TNReady, and a revised system for holding schools and districts accountable under a new federal education law.

But it’s likely to lessen the national buzz on Tennessee, which had been on a hot streak for gains posted from 2011 to 2013 and for scores that held steady in 2015 when many other states saw declines.

Mathematics

Reading

The showing also makes it harder to move from the bottom to the top half of states in national rankings by 2019 — a goal that Tennessee’s Department of Education set in 2015 in its five-year strategic plan.

Tennessee now ranks 34th in both fourth-grade math and reading, 35th in eighth-grade math, and 38th in eighth-grade reading, based on the recent NAEP scores.

“We have moved from the 40s to solidly in the 30s,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters during a briefing on the eve of the results’ release. “We are still going to move to the top 25 of all states. The timeline may have to be shifted.”

Tennessee’s 2017 performance mostly mirrored national NAEP results, which barely budged over the last two years. But it was one of 10 states that saw a drop in scores for fourth-grade math, similar to the results of the last state-administered TNReady test.

McQueen said she’s confident that Tennessee has laid the foundation for improvement. What’s needed now, she said, is stability. The state has changed academic standards three times since 2009 and is trying to get TNReady testing right after two straight years of problems.

“Stability actually really matters in the coming years so we can start digging deeper,” she said. “We can’t keep changing standards and changing assessments and believe that we’re going to be able to go deeper into the foundation that we’ve set.”

"We can’t keep changing standards and changing assessments and believe that we’re going to be able to go deeper ..."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

On a positive note: Tennessee’s NAEP results showed the same level of student proficiency as the state’s most recent test. That’s a big deal because it was the gap in state and national scores in 2007 — when Tennessee received an “F” in honesty from the U.S.Chamber of Commerce — that spurred state leaders to revamp public education with the help of the federal Race to the Top award.

“While we know there’s much to do, we have finally closed the honesty gap,” McQueen said. “We believe if that study was run today, that we would receive an A for finally telling the truth about what our state test now measures compared to what NAEP measures.”

Last year was also the first year that Tennessee’s largest school district participated in a special NAEP test for urban districts along with 26 other school systems. You can read more about the first year of results for Shelby County Schools here.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.