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.

Special education reorganization

Only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver met expectations on state tests

Just 2 percent of black students with disabilities in Denver scored at grade-level or higher on state literacy and math tests last year. In raw numbers, that’s just 33 of the 1,641 black students with disabilities in the school district, according to Denver Public Schools data.

The percentage is similar for Latino students with disabilities: only 2.6 percent met expectations on the tests. Meanwhile, nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities did.

Denver school officials recently revealed those shockingly low numbers and stark racial disparities as further justification for a previously proposed reorganization of the department that oversees special education. The reorganization would shrink the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities, and would increase the number of school psychologists and social workers.

The theory is that providing more robust mental health services in schools will allow the central office staff members who remain to shift their focus from managing behavior crises to improving academic instruction. Because of their expertise, those staff members were often tapped to help teachers deal with challenging behavior from all students, not just those with disabilities, said Eldridge Greer, who oversees special education for Denver Public Schools.

District officials also hope that increasing mental health support will reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined. District data show black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students, while Latino students are three times as likely.

“The biases that are in place in our society unfairly target African-American and Latino children to be controlled as a response to trauma, or as a response to readiness-to-learn (issues), instead of being provided more educational support,” Greer said.

Parents of students with disabilities have pushed back against the district’s plan to cut staff dedicated to special education. Advocates have, too.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said that while the district should be embarrassed by how poorly it’s serving students of color, she’s not sure the proposed reorganization will help.

She and others worry the district is siphoning money from special education to pay for services that will benefit all students – and that in the end, those with disabilities will lose out.

“If the district wants to have a full-time social worker and psychologist in every school, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bisceglia said. “What I have a problem with is the plan doesn’t suggest how instruction is going to look different (for students with disabilities) and how the curriculum is going to be different in terms of learning to read and do math.”

Greer said that in large part, the curriculum and strategies the district has in place are the right ones. What’s lacking, he said, is training for special education teachers, especially those who are new to the profession. Having a cadre of central office staff focused solely on academics will help, he said.

The reorganization, as detailed at a recent school board meeting, calls for cutting 45 districtwide experts who help principals serve students with disabilities – and who Greer said spent a lot of time managing behavior crises. In their place, the district would hire 15 academic specialists, eight more behavior specialists (the district already has seven), and four supervisors.

The overhaul would also ensure that all elementary schools have at least one full-time social worker or psychologist. Schools would also get money to put in place new discipline practices. The school board last year revised its discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through third grade.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get $50,000 to spend on a mental health worker, teacher, or teacher’s aide.

School principals invited to discuss the reorganization with the school board said they welcomed being able to hire more social workers and psychologists. But they said they are unsure about the rest of the plan.

One principal said he relied heavily on the expert assigned to help his school serve students with disabilities. Another expressed concern about losing capable staff.

“How do we retain some of that talent so we don’t end up with a brain drain and lose all these people that have all this knowledge and expertise?” said Gilberto Muñoz, the principal at Swansea Elementary School in north Denver.

When district officials first presented the plan earlier this year, they framed it as a way to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. Just 8 percent of Denver fourth-graders with disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test last year, compared with 44 percent of fourth-graders without disabilities.

But Greer said that when they dug into the data, they discovered the racial disparities.

“We knew there were disparities, but to see disparities as profound as the ones I shared with the board, it was important to elevate that,” he said.

Parent Sarah Young said it was courageous of the district to share such shocking data. But she said she thinks their plan to fix the disparities is lacking – and she disagrees with calling it a reorganization.

Young, who has a daughter with a learning disability, visual impairment, and epilepsy, said Denver Public Schools should call the plan what it is: cuts to special education.

“We understand you’re trying to handle behavior,” Young said, referring to the district. “But these are all vulnerable student populations, and we can’t pit them against each other. We can’t be robbing one to try to put a Band-Aid on another.”

Interrupted

BREAKING: Severed fiber optic line disrupts TNReady testing across Tennessee

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Online testing for Tennessee students was disrupted again on Thursday, this time due to the severing of a main fiber cable between Nashville and Atlanta.

The problems arose in the morning soon after testing began for TNReady, the state’s standardized test, as internet connectivity slowed and traffic was routed to backup channels.

“This is an issue related to local connectivity, not with the testing platform,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “Testing can continue, but connectivity may be slow in areas that are impacted until this is resolved.”

Many districts chose to suspend testing for the day, while others left the decision up to school principals.

In Memphis, home to the state’s largest district, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said students were “not able to connect” to the state’s online platform and that principals would decide whether to keep trying.

TNReady’s online test has experienced widespread interruptions on at least four days since the state’s three-week testing window opened on April 16. There were log-in issues on the first day, a reported cyber attack on the second, and a problem with online rosters on Wednesday after the state’s testing company, Questar, updated its software the night before.

Concerns about the subsequent validity of the results prompted state lawmakers to pass two pieces of legislation — the latest one on Wednesday — aimed at preventing students, teachers, schools, and districts from being negatively impacted by the data.

The online issues are affecting high school students statewide. Some districts also chose to expand computerized testing this year to middle grades. For the states’s youngest students, TNReady was being given on paper.

This story has been updated.