TN test gains to new policies

Nov 24, 2013 by

Joey Garrison –

At the high point of the choreographed celebration, Gov. Bill Haslam turned to a video that let kids count down to the big winner. Which state had outperformed all others in education gains?


A state long marred by a dismal record in student achievement had risen to the top in test gains among fourth- and eighth-grade students, according to the “nation’s report card” released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

For a governor’s office under heightened scrutiny for its pace in implementing controversial education reforms, the news marked a clear political win. Though Haslam said the occasion wasn’t a moment to “spike the ball” to the naysayers, other top Republicans did so for him.

And in the eyes of a budding group of education reformers nationally, a larger trend had unfolded. They grouped Tennessee with the other big winner, one that would have been crowned “fastest-improving state” if only it were one: the District of Columbia.

Tennessee and Washington, D.C., two of only three jurisdictions that saw a bounce in both reading and math NAEP scores among fourth- and eighth-graders from 2011 to 2013, are both at the forefront of a national education reform movement. So is Indiana, which finished a distant third.

Those results have stoked a debate nationally on whether this trio has the right formula, putting Tennessee even more under the microscope for its whirlwind of education changes that go back to the tail-end of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s tenure in 2010 — initial moves toward higher academic standards, a system to evaluate teachers and more recent decisions under Haslam to ease charter school restrictions, undo collective bargaining for teachers and overhaul teacher tenure.

The gains, released two weeks ago, are indisputable. Combining both tested areas in both grades, Tennessee jumped 21.8 points. Washington, D.C.’s bump was 22.22 points, while Indiana experienced a 14.67-point gain.

Some reformers see validation. Skeptics, though, see a misleading picture — one distorted even more when considering Tennessee still sits below the national average in scores and actually saw achievement gaps among some demographics widen.

Like education leaders in Washington, D.C., Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman hasn’t credited any single item for helping push his state to make some of the most seismic gains in the history of the NAEP test, which goes back to 1990.

Some of Tennessee’s most recent changes, including a new teacher pay plan that gives less emphasis to advanced degrees, don’t even go into effect until next year.

But he pointed to two policies Washington, D.C., and Tennessee have both adopted: controversial teacher evaluations that tie the achievement of students to a teacher’s performance and the adoption of higher academic standards on state-administered testing, a precursor to Common Core standards.

“I think there’s sort of a combination of things that we were all doing, and I do think it’s related to our NAEP gain,” Huffman said. “I don’t think our NAEP gains are accidental.”

Cause and effect?

Washington, D.C., happens to be the district formerly led by Michelle Rhee — Huffman’s ex-wife — whose reforms there made her a hero among reformers and a villain among teachers’ unions. The rapid changes she put in place there are still intact.

Her allies, like Huffman, have started to link D.C. and Tennessee together.

Eric Lerum, vice president of national policy at StudentsFirst, the pro-reform group that Rhee founded after her exit from Washington, said it’s too early to tell whether there’s a “direct cause-and-effect relationship” between reform and results and that another round of NAEP results would tell a fuller story.

Still, he said: “When you look at Tennessee and D.C., the size and the scale of their gains make them stand out among all other states.”

Lerum also pointed to the higher standards and decisions to move faster than others in adopting teacher evaluations. “When you combine those two things, you’ve got raising expectations for kids and raising expectations for teachers. You put those two things together, it makes sense that you should see some results.”

‘Don’t believe the hype’

That argument isn’t going unchallenged, though.

Diane Ravitch, an author, professor and the nation’s leading counter voice to Rhee and a critic of Huffman, pointed to other “reformy states,” such as Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana and Wisconsin, in a blog post dubbed “NAEP Results: Don’t Believe the Hype.”

“Many of the states that made small gains, no gains, or lost ground did exactly the same things,” Ravitch said in an email to The Tennessean. “And bear in mind that Tennessee is getting close to the national average, while D.C. is dead last.

“The question is about interpretation,” she said. “Is the Tennessee-D.C. lesson that states get higher scores by being abusive to teachers? It is hard to believe that is a winning formula for the long term.”

Lerum countered, arguing that many of the states cited by Ravitch aren’t as far along as D.C. or Tennessee in their reforms. “There’s a difference between adopting policies and implementing them,” he said.

For all the celebration, Tennessee’s NAEP scores are still below the national average: 37th in fourth-grade math, 31st in fourth-grade reading, 43rd in eighth-grade math and 34th in eighth-grade reading. Some achievement gaps also widened — Hispanic students in fourth-grade math, for example, saw an 11-point separation from their white peers grow to 18 points.

The overall reaction on Tennessee’s NAEP results, though, has been overwhelmingly positive, including from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who labeled Tennessee’s results “remarkable” compared with modest bumps nationwide. He’s praised the leadership in Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

Taking credit

At home, both political parties are taking credit.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey pointed to tenure reform, teacher evaluations and “elimination of the union monopoly on collective bargaining,” calling the test scores “indisputable proof” that Republican-led education initiatives are working.

“Tennessee has led the nation in pursuing ambitious reforms,” Ramsey said. “Now we see the results.”

The statehouse’s dwindling coalition of Democrats, meanwhile, has praised the last Democratic governor, Bredesen, who led the bipartisan overhaul of an array of education laws in 2010 — dubbed First to the Top — that landed Tennessee $501 million in federal Race to the Top dollars.

In fact, Bredesen’s First to the Top carved out the higher standards and teacher evaluations that Haslam and Huffman have since advanced. The state’s federal Race to the Top application discussed the new state assessments with higher standards, anticipating Tennessee would “slide, then recover.”

That document reads: “On the NAEP, we know from experience that results are harder to shift, and that we will likely not see real gains until 2013 when students have had several years under the new standards.”

Crediting Bredesen’s path, House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he’s worried that more recent changes under the Haslam administration on teacher licensure and pay will be “counterproductive” to the NAEP gains.

“I’m concerned about the current administration sort of taking credit for all these improvements when we’ve yet to see the effects of the most recent ones that the education community has had to comply with,” Fitzhugh said.

Moving forward, Tennessee’s education and political communities will be watching to see whether the NAEP momentum continues. Another key measuring tool is a test known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which Tennessee and students in 14 other states will take for the first time next year to align with Common Core.

There’s also the high school-level ACT, a college entrance exam whose average score in Tennessee has remained static at around 19 for the past three years. Huffman believes the struggle there is a “pipeline issue” — students who took it didn’t have the higher standards during their middle school years.

“If ACT by 2015 isn’t moving, I’ll be pretty disappointed,” Huffman said. “We expect to see ACT scores start to go up pretty soon.”

via Reformers, politicians quick to tie TN test gains to new policies | The Tennessean |

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1 Comment

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    Interesting article but wasn’t there some claims to tests being fixed in regards to Washington DC and if Huffman is the ex-husband of Rhee then how valid are these results?

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