Raising the bar on public education

Sunday, September 26, 2010 at 11:45pm
Steven Hale

When students throughout the Metro Nashville Public Schools system get their Individual Profile Reports from last spring’s statewide TCAP test this week, the collective results will almost certainly be depressing — or so we’ve been told.

For months, Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Department of Education have set out to soften the blow rendered by the Tennessee Diploma Project, an initiative authorized by the state legislature in 2008 to raise Tennessee’s dismally low testing standards. It has been something of an odd public-relations campaign: It might look like things have gotten worse, Bredesen and other public officials (including Mayor Karl Dean and Director of Schools Jesse Register) have suggested with silver-lining logic, but they’re actually getting better.

Before they do, though, comes the difficult transition period that officially begins this week.

The Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program is a timed, multiple-choice test that measures skills in reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. The new standards, which are higher than ACT college readiness standards, make Tennessee’s the second-highest bar in the country.

Last Monday, Dean, Register and school board chair Gracie Porter co-signed a letter addressed to Metro Nashville Public Schools Families that continued the effort to prepare parents.

“For years, Tennessee’s student achievement standards have been among the lowest in the nation,” the letter read. “Now, Tennessee’s standards are among the toughest in the nation. And this past year, students were taught and tested on these new, higher standards.”

Three major changes

The letter, along with other information for parents about the new scores and how to interpret them, appeared on the homepages of many school websites.

Amanda Anderson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, described the convergence of changes in Tennessee’s educational system.

“I’ve been calling it a ‘perfect storm,’ ” she said. “It’s going to be a two- to three-year process to see test scores start to level out.”

For the first time, students are facing higher standards, more rigorous tests and revised proficiency levels. As both Anderson and the aforementioned letter noted, the newly configured proficiency levels may give the appearance of a drop in student knowledge. While a minimal understanding of a subject might have earned a score of “proficient” in previous years — equal to roughly a D — now students are expected to exhibit some mastery to achieve such a score (which roughly equates to a B).

“It doesn’t mean students have lost knowledge,” Anderson said. “It means we’ve changed the goal line.”

Meredith Libbey, assistant to Register, described the feeling among local education officials as optimistic and excited, and echoed statements made by Bredesen in the past few months.

“We’re not doing anybody a favor by saying ‘you’re advanced’ when, compared to national tests, you may not be,” Libbey said.

While low test scores this year may indicate a student body and school system that have fallen behind much of the nation up to now, Libbey said it is a challenge Tennessee students and educators are ready to meet.

“When you raise the bar, people work to reach it,” she said. “Our kids are going to be as well-prepared as students anywhere in the country, and we encourage parents to remind their students that they are capable of doing the work necessary to achieve.”

Ronald Prowe, principal of Thomas Edison Elementary School in Antioch, said his students “actually did quite well,” but he acknowledged that scores are down from past years.

“[It’s a] no-brainer that scores will be low when you raise the bar,” he said.

Metro school board member Kay Simmons, who represents parts of west Nashville, called the lower scores “a growing pain.”

“But higher standards will tremendously help schools and students improve over the long haul,” she said. “It’s just that right now students and teachers all have to make an adjustment in their expectations. These new standards will help bring them up, we think, to a new level.”

Some critical of test-based standards

The transition could result — temporarily, at least — in more schools falling below federal No Child Left Behind standards.

“We could see more schools on the accountability pipeline,” said Anderson, echoing state education commissioner Tim Webb’s warning.

That “pipeline” is the path schools go down once they fail to meet statewide benchmarks established under No Child Left Behind. With each consecutive year a school misses the mark, state involvement in the school increases, eventually resulting in a state takeover of the failing school after a seventh sub-par year.

Local principals and their staffs will be faced with the day-to-day work of reaching said benchmarks. Alison Effinger said Nashville schools are ready for the challenge.

Effinger, principal of Eakin Elementary School in Hillsboro-West End, admitted that even third- and fourth-grade students have holes in their education, cut in part by the inaccurate rating of student progress under previous low standards. But older middle and high school students, who might be unprepared for the jump to the next level of education, might be more affected, she said.

“There are going to be holes, but it is our job as educators to fill in the gaps,” she said.

Effinger acknowledged that there is work to be done, but she warned against labeling students unfairly based on TCAP tests — a common criticism of both federal and state testing-based education standards. Still, she shares officials’ optimism for the future.

“This is a test, on one day, in a 180-day school year,” Effinger said. “I don’t think any parent or educator should ever take this one score and judge students on it. I think there has been a gloom-and-doom feeling out there, but we know we have a lot to do, and we’re going to get it done. We can only go up from here.”

According to Anderson, teachers across the state are being trained to help students meet the new standards. Additionally, Anderson said some funds from the $501 million grant the state received from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition would be leveraged toward preparing students to reach the new goal.

The state’s report card — including TCAP scores — is expected to become public in November.