According to the report, Tennessee earned an “A” for the state’s academic standards in 2017, after the state received a “B” or “B-” grade for several years and an “F” for the state’s academic standards in 2009.
The report also highlighted the improved performance of Tennessee’s students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and, indicated Tennessee has closed the proficiency gap between national assessments and the state’s TNReady assessment by more than 60 points — more than any other state.
Since the old state test, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, was replaced by the TNReady assessment in 2015, there have been some problems, including difficulties integrating the test online, a cyber attack and incorrectly scored assessments that affected 70 schools in 33 districts last fall.
While the problems have sparked criticism — leading some to call for the resignation of Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen — some Johnson City Schools officials think the state and local districts are working through many of the problems that have plagued state testing in the past.
“In terms of the actual (TNReady) test and the problems we’ve had with that, any time there’s a change it’s difficult, and obviously we’ve attempted a platform change,” Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Testing Roger Walk said, weeks after he described the school system’s experience as a “comedy of errors” during a board meeting in which officials proposed local alternatives to the TNReady assessment.
“So not only do we have new standards and a new test, we’ve attempted to change the platform from a paper test to an electronic computer-based test, and we’re not the only state that has had pains with that.”
Karin Keith, who chairs the East Tennessee State University Department of Curriculum and Instruction, agrees that past problems could have more to do with logistics.
“I think the problem they’re having is with the online versions of TNReady, which seems to be the root of the problem,” she said. “I know that McQueen had to appear before legislators for that, and there were a lot of questions. As far as the curriculum they’re adopting now, the standards are getting better.”
Sherry Cockerham, the Johnson City Schools district math coach, and Debra Bentley, director of instruction and communication, both served on the state’s committees to revise standards in 2015. Despite some bumps in the road, they said educators have worked diligently to align state and national standards while making state testing more rigorous and efficiently aligned with classroom instruction.
Cockerham’s focus was on math, while Bentley's focus was on English and language arts.
“With the new standards, we structured them in a way that focused on conceptual understanding rather than just blindly following a procedure,” Cockerham said.
Trying to get it right took “a great deal of homework,” but Bentley said the improvements cited in the report indicate positive progress.
“Basically, both the math and ELA began with identifying the end result. What should the students be able to do and understand as they walk across that stage as seniors?” Bentley said. “We’ve been very pleased with the results we’ve been seeing with our students based on these (new) standards.”
In the Education Next report, Tennessee was highlighted as one of seven states that narrowed the “honesty gap,” or the disparity between how students score on state tests and how they perform on the NAEP, in at least one grade or content area by 10 or more points between 2015 and 2017.
Raising standards and closing this gap has been more than a decade-long struggle for state education officials that started when the United States Chamber of Commerce also gave Tennessee two “F”s in 2007 for low academic expectations and truth in advertising. At that time, the TCAP results showed more than 90 percent of students were proficient, but the NAEP results showed numbers in the mid-20s.
“In Tennessee, we stand out from other states as our increase in proficiency standards has gone hand-in-hand with gains in student achievement,” McQueen said of the report. “Our students are growing to meet our high expectations where other states have stayed flat, and we’ve closed the ‘honesty gap’ more than any other state.”