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.

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 [email protected]

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”