Five takeaways from Tennessee’s ‘quick score’ flap

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research for the State Department of Education, explains test calculation changes to Shelby County teachers earlier this month in Memphis.

Officials with the State Department of Education have been doing a lot of explaining in the month since confusion erupted around this year’s standardized test scores.

Each explanation — before teacher groups, members of the State Board of Education, and a state testing task force — has yielded more information, but no complete accounting of why this year’s preliminary test scores suddenly did not reflect students’ real performance. Parents and educators continue to have questions.

The issue first arose in May when Tennessee teachers in grades 3-8 received higher-than-expected “quick scores” for their students. Issued because the state’s official test scores are not available until midsummer, quick scores are preliminary scores that teachers must incorporate into students’  final grades.

In the past, quick scores accurately predicted a student’s performance level on the test as being below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. But this year, the state used a new formula to calculate quick scores — one that isn’t connected to performance levels at all. And state officials neglected to tell districts about the change. So when teachers received higher-than-expected scores this spring, many concluded that more students than ever were scoring proficient — and passed along the impression to parents in the form of high end-of-year grades.

Except that it wasn’t true. After some educators began questioning the results — and the state’s motive behind them — state officials dispatched letters alerting school directors to the calculation change and explaining that a high quick score doesn’t necessarily equate to a proficient or advanced performance level. But while the letter alerted districts to the change, it did not clarify why the change happened and what it means.

After one month of explanations and presentations, here’s what we now know — and what we still don’t:

1. There was no need for the change this year. 

When State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said last week that the change “needed to happen,” she was alluding to looming changes to the state’s testing program.

Originally, the state planned to switch to a new Common Core-aligned test known as PARCC this year. The switch would have required a new quick score formula because the old one depended on past years’ performance data. Indeed, Nakia Towns, assistant state education commissioner for data and research, told members of a testing task force this week that Department of Education officials initially explored changing the way they calculated quick scores back when Tennessee students were preparing for PARCC.

But legislators voted in April 2014 to delay the arrival of Common Core-aligned tests. Their decision meant that students this year took tests that did not reflect the standards in place in the state — and also that the old quick score formula would have worked just fine. Education officials proceeded with the new calculation method anyway.

2. The flap points to bumps in the leadership transition at the State Department of Education.

At this week’s task force meeting, Towns said she takes “full ownership for this mistake.”

But if the department’s explanation for the change is true, and the change was made in advance of PARCC testing, then the decision to change quick scores was made during the tenure of Kevin Huffman, the state schools chief who left at the end of 2014 after ushering Tennessee schools through massive changes under the federal Race to the Top initiative. Towns and McQueen joined the department in early 2015, and both said they were not aware of the change until it went into effect. Huffman has declined to comment.

Taken together, their statements point to one possible explanation for the communication lapse: that someone within the small army of statisticians and bureaucrats who administer the state’s increasingly complex testing program made the change — but no one told educators and families on the ground. That scenario raises questions about whether the department is set up to keep Tennesseans in the loop about information that’s important to them — and whether the recent leadership shift, and attendant changing of the guard within the department, has compounded longstanding communication challenges.

3. McQueen’s brief honeymoon as education commissioner is over.

Candice McQueen
Candice McQueen

Huffman’s resignation came amid accolades from Gov. Bill Haslam and education leaders, and criticism from educators who complained that his initiatives had contributed to a culture of over-testing. But Tennessee’s oft-divided education community was united in its embrace of Huffman’s successor. A former classroom teacher, McQueen has enjoyed widespread approval as she repeatedly has emphasized the importance of transparency and worked to solicit more feedback from parents and educators about standardized testing.

The quick score blunder has put her on the defensive for the first time. The State Board of Education has pressed her for an explanation, and 13 community organizations joined to circulate an online petition criticizing the state’s lack of transparency about its testing program.

Last week, she told the state board that the calculation change needed to happen before next school year, when the state rolls out its new achievement test, known as TNReady. But she acknowledged that the state dropped the ball by not communicating better with local districts.

4. The snafu undermines Tennessee’s recent advances and accolades for becoming more honest about its students’ performance. 

Race to the Top, the federal funding initiative that led Tennessee to adopt the Common Core standards and overhaul its testing program, was in part aimed at stopping states from misleading students about their skills.

“I think we are fundamentally lying to children,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2009, in comments he would repeat many times. “When children are told they are ‘meeting a state standard,’ the logical assumption for that child or for that parent is to think they are on track to be successful. But because these standards have been dummied down and lowered so much in so many places, when a child is ‘meeting the state standard’ they are in fact barely able to graduate from high school.”

Tennessee was no outlier: In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an “F” for truth in advertising about student achievement.

Since then, the state has taken substantial steps to ensure that test scores accurately reflect students’ skill levels. Just last month, an education advocacy group lauded Tennessee for closing the “honesty gap” between student test scores and reality.

The quick score flap suggests that the gap is far from closed, however. Teachers’ primary complaint has been that the state’s fumble made them unwitting accomplices in misleading parents and students about student academic performance. Valerie Love, a Kingsport high school math teacher on McQueen’s task force and a parent of two elementary school students, said parents saw higher scores and thought “my kid knows something” — only to learn later that their child actually is struggling academically. “What the grade communicates to the community is what concerns me,” Love said.

5. The future of quick scores — and how parents are informed about student performance — is uncertain.

Towns asked task force members — which include parents, teachers, lawmakers and superintendents — for ideas on how to ensure that the confusion isn’t repeated. A 2010 state law, passed as part of Race to the Top, requires districts to incorporate state achievement test scores into final grades, but it doesn’t stipulate how. Quick scores previously were considered the easiest way.

“Some districts have asked, why don’t you just provide the raw score, and let us figure it out?” Towns said.

Another solution floated this week is to issue more comprehensive quick score reports for parents, so they are not misled about the meaning of the score. The department also is exploring establishing a parent advisory council, and looking at ways to make TCAP reports more comprehensive and user-friendly, rather than relying on quick scores as the primary source of performance information.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede