New standards aim to catch TN students up
By Chris Echegaray • THE TENNESSEAN • July 29, 2010
Mortimer Davenport wanted to give his 14-year-old son, Martez, every advantage. For a while, he hoped that would be private school instead of Nashville's Cane Ridge High, but it was just too expensive.
So he was heartened to learn that Tennessee was going to make lessons tougher for its public school children. Even before a statewide campaign told him so, Davenport knew it had to be done for success in college and beyond.
"What I want to know is why didn't Tennessee have these standards from the very beginning?" Davenport said. "… You want them to be ready. I don't mind these standards if students are taught well and made viable for college."
Gov. Phil Bredesen, who championed tougher curriculum and testing for Tennessee students, toured the state last week touting the new standards and warning parents of the result — much lower standardized test scores coming home in September. The state will roll out an ad campaign with the same message next month. But well before parents began taking note, principals and teachers were figuring out how to move students forward in a giant leap.
The state adopted the new standards in 2008 and introduced them for the 2009-10 school year. Spring testing marked educators' first chance to see how much of a gap in student knowledge they're facing.
Angela Wilburn, a 22-year veteran of Metro Nashville Public Schools, said she has heard fifth-grade teachers quietly wondering how to teach pre-algebra concepts to students who barely do arithmetic.
Wilburn, an eighth-grade math teacher at McMurray Middle in South Nashville, said she is methodical in her lessons, going a bit slower and partnering struggling students with stronger classmates. She expects math scores to nosedive on the new testing, but with strong instruction, students will bounce back, she said.
However, what's missing from the new standards is student accountability, she said. They can pass to the next grade no matter how they score on Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests.
"My biggest fear as an educator is that there are no repercussions for students who don't do well," Wilburn said. "We can't retain students. There needs to be some standard that ties student scoring to promotion."
Meanwhile, 35 percent of teacher evaluations will be tied to student performance on Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program and end-of-course tests.
Not a gradual shift
Teachers are prepared to use a tougher curriculum to move students ahead, said Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, although the union would have liked a more gradual shift instead of everything implemented in one year.
Bredesen said increasing standards was necessary for long-term gain of higher achievement on national tests, like the ACT college entrance exam, and he's asking all to stay the course.
Under Tennessee's new standards, students formerly considered "advanced" are likely to score barely proficient on last spring's Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program and end-of-course testing, the state education commissioner said last week.
Comparing Tennessee students' performance on state and national tests shows how far behind the state is. The Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board recently issued a report showing that 90 percent of Tennessee fourth-graders were considered proficient in reading using state tests in 2009, but only 28 percent scored at that level on a national test.
"The whole idea is to let teachers know where students' weaknesses are and guide instruction accordingly," said Alan Richard, spokesman for the regional board. "It doesn't do you much good to have 90 percent meeting the standard."
Julie Hopkins, principal of Buena Vista Elementary in North Nashville, said she is reviewing student performance from several school assessments that help her determine their strengths and weaknesses and how to teach to those. This year, a consultant will work with teachers one-on-one since there's a lot of varying instructions for the new standards.
School started in spring
Some educators are taking bold steps to be sure students can meet the new standards. Stewarts Creek Elementary in Rutherford County was approved for a pilot program that launched students into the next grade's curriculum right after spring TCAP tests.
Rachael Ged, a Stewarts Creek Elementary parent last year, was critical of the program. She said it was likely students would forget lessons over the summer, and said parents weren't properly notified of the plan. She is confident her children, A students who are both now at Stewarts Creek Middle School, performed well on spring testing. But others probably needed time to make the transition, Ged said.
"Those already behind need a chance to catch up," she said. "There has to be progression in some way. A lot of kids are below the line and won't be able to reach that bar that's just been raised."
Ged wants to be sure teachers get plenty of funding from Race To The Top, the $500 million federal grant awarded the state this year, in part as a reward for increasing standards.
In the end, students succeed because parents at home guide them, said Daniel Phibbs, whose son, Tanner, attends Mt. Juliet Elementary School.
Phibbs moved his family to Wilson County from Colorado after he learned the school district fared better in reading and writing than neighboring counties. Phibbs said he believes Tennessee will catch up with the rest of the nation.
"It boils down to parents, schools and teachers working in concert for the bigger picture goal ... smart, well-rounded, well-adjusted productive children," he said.