The first full year under Common Core education standards amounted to a mixed bag for Tennessee student’s test scores.
Less than a year after earning accolades that Tennessee’s middle schoolers showed the fastest academic growth in the country, students on this year’s state test struggled to make solid gains.
“It can be easy to lose sight of just how hard this work is,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in a press conference releasing the scores at the Capitol Building Tuesday. “We’ve asked students and teachers and districts to do something that is incredibly challenging. We continue to see that they are rising to the challenges. This is very, very hard work. But we can’t ever say that’s it’s too hard.”
In all, students in third grade through high school showed improvements in 19 of 31 state tests in results to this year's Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program and End of Course exams.
Less than half of Tennessee’s students are at grade level in nearly one-third of the exams, which range from reading and English to math, science and social studies.
Middle school students tend to struggle the most in reading, with between 44 percent to 55 percent of children in each grade statewide scoring at or above grade level. Reading scores dropped in all but fourth and seventh grade, largely bringing student performance back to 2011 achievement levels in third, fifth, sixth and eight grades.
In math, 51 percent of students scored above grade level. Scores fell in all but fifth and sixth grade which saw a jumps by 4.4 percentage points and a 5.4 percentage points, respectively.
High schoolers saw the greatest improvement, showing gains in English I and II, and Algebra. The greatest jump was in Algebra II, which saw a nearly 6 percentage point jump, to 47.9 percent scoring at or above grade level, a nearly 18 percentage points climb from 2011.
Scores in English III dropped by 1.5 percentage points, falling at 38.1 percent at or above grade level.
“The improvement in high school math is a big deal,” said David Mansouri, executive vice president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. “To make a 6 percentage point increase in one year, 20-some percent over four years when we know that math and STEM subjects are so important for the workforce, I think that’s a big deal.”
“I think what the data also shows us is we need to bear down in reading over the next year.”
Last year, the state announced Tennessee made the largest academic growth in the country from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, also known as “the nation’s report card.” Scores in fourth and eighth grade students’ reading and math tests meant Tennessee jumped to 37th in the nation from 46th in math and to 31st from 41st in reading.
NAEP scores showed 17 percent of high school seniors scored proficient in math, and 31 percent in reading.
This year was supposed to be the last for the annual TCAP exams as the state had prepared to transition to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a test closely aligned to new but controversial Common Core standards that emphasize analytical thinking over memorization.
Citing concerns about data usage and the nationalizing of education, legislators muscled the administration to go along with a one-year delay of any new exams while the state puts a contract for a new state test out for bid. The situation had built friction between the legislature and the administration, which has argued the PARCC exam would better measure student achievement. Haslam said the state has yet to seek proposals for a new provider of the test, which could still end up as the PARCC exam.
“We are teaching our kids to do higher order skills that TCAP doesn’t reach,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman who caught heat from lawmakers in part for his readiness to embrace the PARCC exam. “And so I think that it’s important to note that while we care a lot about TCAPing and need to see progress on TCAP, our educators want to get credit for the work that they’re doing and there’s a bunch of work that they’re doing that TCAP doesn’t reach.”