student growth

Here’s why people are talking about Tennessee, a ‘bright green rectangle’ on a new U.S. map of student growth

As recently as 2009, Tennessee was considered a cellar dweller when it came to student performance on national tests known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Maps depicting student proficiency in math and reading showed Tennessee consistently scoring below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP — considered the gold standard of student assessments — even as neighboring states such as Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi fared better.

But now a new map based on a Stanford researcher’s analysis — showing high-growth districts in shades of green and low-growth districts in purple — has people talking, including Kevin Huffman, the state’s former education commissioner.

The analysis, released this month by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, is the largest of its kind. Author Sean Reardon examined standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015. He used NAEP data to link the scores across states and controlled for differences on state tests by converting school performance to a common scale that measures growth in grade levels. Specifically, he looked at two things: 1) average student performance in third-grade math and English tests; and 2) student test score growth between the third and eighth grades.

Tennessee has never turned heads when it comes to proficiency on national tests but, based on several batches of NAEP scores and now Reardon’s map, it’s raising eyebrows on student growth.

“The first thing that jumps out at you on the map is: ‘Who is that little green rectangle in the middle?’ And that little green rectangle, of course, is us,” said Nakia Towns, Tennessee’s assistant education commissioner, during a presentation last week to a state task force on testing.

Reports on Reardon’s work have garnered Tennessee mentions in publications like The New York Times and this clear shout-out from Mother Jones: “Tennessee is a green oasis in the middle of a desert of purple. Someone should figure out what they’re doing right.”

Reardon says the green “suggests that there’s something behind the higher growth rates for Tennessee students than for students elsewhere in the Southeast. But it doesn’t tell us what caused it or why it happened.”

Tennessee officials are quick to pin the growth on a statewide overhaul of K-12 education grounded in higher academic standards, aligned assessments, and across-the-board accountability for districts, schools, teachers and students. That includes its controversial policy to incorporate growth from standardized test scores into teacher evaluations as part of the state’s 2010 First to the Top plan.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

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

She added that state and district leaders have collaborated to provide training and coaching supports along the way; educators have stepped up their game in the classroom; and two governors (one Democrat, one Republican) and multiple iterations of legislatures have stayed the course on Tennessee’s overall blueprint for improvement, even as major challenges have emerged.

The Stanford analysis adds credibility to the consolation prize that Tennessee officials have touted since the release of 2013 NAEP scores. Tennessee is the nation’s fastest-improving state in math and reading, they say, even as some naysayers have questioned the superlative.

Since 2011, the state’s national ranking has risen from 46th to 25th in fourth-grade math, 41st to 36th in fourth-grade reading, 45th to 37th in eighth-grade math, and 41st to 30th in eighth-grade reading.

Now, Tennessee is waiting anxiously to see if this year’s NAEP scores, to be released early next year, will support that narrative and advance its goal of ranking in the top half of states by 2019.

PHOTO: TDOE

In the meantime, Reardon’s analysis is helping districts compare their quality of education with their peers, and it’s highlighting school systems that are excelling in academic growth, including those in high-poverty areas. (His research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.)

“Tennessee’s average scores are lower than other states, but their growth rates are a little higher,” Reardon said. “That suggests that kids in Tennessee aren’t getting the same kinds of opportunities early on, but they seem to be having opportunities to learn from third to eighth grade.”

For Towns, who oversees data and research for Tennessee’s education department, the map shows in stark terms that it’s not just something in the water when it comes to her state’s student growth, particularly when comparing border districts with their counterparts just across the line in eight other southeastern states. For the most part, it’s green in Tennessee, purple across the line.

“These are people who go to church together, probably shop at the same WalMart, work together across state lines,” she said. “… There’s not a difference in the kinds of students served, but there’s a big difference in the (education) policy context.”

How effective was your Tennessee district?

Use the search box below to learn how much average student growth your local school district* achieved in five years.

*Shelby County’s listing is pre-merger and broken down as Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools (legacy); Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is listed as Davidson County Schools.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.