Tougher standards give TN honest look at where kids stand
By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • July 31, 2010
About half of Tennessee's public school students failed to meet state academic standards this year, the result of a more rigorous curriculum, harder exams and tougher grading.
The dismal results didn't come as a surprise to state leaders, who for years have said that Tennessee schools are too easy and that the state does not accurately report academic performance.
But the new scores are a sobering look at just how far behind students in the Volunteer State trail. For example:
• Only a quarter of eighth-grade math students posted scores showing they're on track to graduate with the skills needed to do college-level work
• Fewer than half of fourth-grade test-takers read on grade level under last school year's higher standards.
• Under last year's Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, only 9 percent of students in grades 3-8 would have failed math exams. As it stands, 67 percent failed, demonstrating weaknesses in the old system and increased expectations now.
The news came Friday as the Tennessee Board of Education decided which TCAP scores should be considered passing.
Last fall, public school students were introduced to a more rigorous curriculum. In the spring, a more difficult TCAP made its debut. Now, in the third and final phase, those test results are being graded. Individual school and student reports will be available in September and October.
As hard as the new scores are to swallow, state leaders say they are proof substantial changes are being made to the education system, and parents are getting their first honest look at how kids are performing.
"We're finally telling the truth about where we are and where our kids are," said Education Commissioner Tim Webb. "We just didn't know. Our teachers didn't know. But now they do. And so we will move forward."
State asks for time
Conversations about new standards started in 2006 when a magazine called Education Next gave Tennessee the "cream puff award" for having the worst standards in the nation. For years, 80 percent to 90 percent of students have been sailing through state exams with proficient or advanced scores, while bombing national tests like the ACT college entrance exam or the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The end result? In a few years, state officials say, Tennessee's scores will improve on local and national tests, and students won't need remedial college courses.
"It's something we all need to take a great deal of pride in, where we've moved during these last several years," said B. Fielding Rolston, chairman of the state Board of Education.
Ruth Stewart, parent of a rising sophomore at Hume-Fogg Magnet High, said she doesn't expect her son's scores to drop, but regardless she'll be OK with the results if they present a more accurate view of how he's doing on a national level.
"We do need to be compared with kids nationally," she said.
"If we think our kids are doing well and they're not nationally, I want to know that. These are the kids we're going to be competing with for college placement and jobs. My view is all information, if it's accurate, is good."
In the wake of the results, the state is waiting to see how it will respond to schools that end up not meeting state standards.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the state must intervene when schools fail to meet testing benchmarks, which are calculated for students of subgroups like race and income level. The longer a school fails to meet the benchmarks, the more severe the intervention required.
But because so many schools are bound to fail this year under the new system, state officials are asking the federal government for time to make the transition into the new standards without having to take drastic interventions. Instead, they want to focus state resources on training teachers.
Commissioner Webb, who sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan asking for the reprieve, said preliminary conversations with federal officials have been positive.
"We've talked to them, and they materially agree with what we're saying, but we're waiting on final approval," Webb said. "I think we have some good promise."
New national standards
In another development, the board joined 32 other states in voting to adopt new national standards called the Common Core.
All total, 48 states have agreed to adopt the standards, which aren't federally mandated but are the closest thing that exists to a uniform national curriculum. That means all students in all the Common Core states will be learning the same things at the same time.
State leaders say the Common Core is an 85 percent match to the curriculum currently in place. The standards cover math and English language arts and must be integrated into schools within the next three years.
Students will be tested on the new material in 2014-15. Those exams also will tread new ground: They will be computerized.