Today, leaders across Tennessee lauded the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results. And they should. Tennessee is first in an education statistic and it’s a good one. The fastest growing state in the last 2 years in terms of growth in math and reading scores as measured by NAEP.
That’s good news. It’s very good news. Despite some claims, though, it’s very difficult to say results on the 2013 NAEP are a direct result of reforms that took place in 2011 and 2012. States with more rigid teacher tenure and with collective bargaining for teachers scored higher overall than Tennessee (nevermind Ron Ramsey’s rant against both — they just don’t test out as significant indicators of student achievement in either a positive or negative way). And of course, it’s easier to grow when you have a long way to go — Tennessee has historically been among the lowest performing states on the NAEP.
Let’s take a look at the data on a deeper level, though, and see what’s been happening. For the sake of this comparison, I’m going to look at Tennessee and Kentucky — a similarly situated Southeastern state with a nearly identical level of students in poverty and/or on free/reduced lunch. I’m going to look at 20 year trends to see what we can learn from the overall education work in both states. So, here goes:
4th Grade Math
1992 KY 215 TN 211
2013 KY 241 TN 240
Over the 20 year period, Kentucky increased by 16 points, Tennessee by 19 — and Kentucky still leads by 1 point. To Tennessee’s credit, the gap in scores was narrowed by 3 points.
Let’s look at the percentage of students in each state who test at or above basic — this is short of the mastery demonstrated by the score of proficient, but still indicates a basic understanding of the concept — below basic is the lowest score and is frankly, unacceptable.
In 1992, 51% of Kentucky kids tested at or above basic and in Tennessee, it was 47%. Now, 84% of Kentucky kids are at or above basic in 4th grade math while only 80% can say the same in Tennessee. Both states posted 33 point gains in this important number over the last 20 years and Kentucky remains 4 points ahead of Tennessee.
Now, let’s look at the two states and how they are doing with their poorest students, those on free and reduced lunch. One of the key goals of many involved in education is closing achievement gaps and moving the lowest performing kids forward quickly.
FREE/REDUCED LUNCH 4th GRADE MATH SCORES
KY 232 TN 228
KY 19 points TN 26 points
Not only do Tennessee’s students on free and reduced lunch score lower than Kentucky’s, Tennessee’s gap is wider — by a 7-point margin in the case of 4th grade math. This begins a troubling pattern.
Before I go further with this analysis, I want to point out that Kentucky doesn’t use value-added data for teacher evaluations, has no charter schools, its teachers are awarded tenure after 4 years, and it hasn’t adopted any of the reforms Tennessee’s current leaders tell us are essential to improving scores. In fact, their Commissioner has openly expressed skepticism of any evaluation system that bases any part of a teacher’s score on value-added data. As the rest of the data will demonstrate, both Kentucky and Tennessee have posted gains over time on NAEP — in most categories, Kentucky started out tied or very slightly ahead of Tennessee and today, Kentucky remains ahead. Kentucky posted some pretty big gains in the mid-90s and again from 2003-2009. Since then, they’ve held fairly steady. That’s an expected result, by the way — a big gain followed by steady maintenance of the new level. For Tennessee, that won’t be enough, but celebrating the big gain is certainly warranted. It’s also important to take care in assigning causality.
Ok, back to the data.
8th Grade Math
1992 KY 262 TN 259
2013 KY 281 TN 278
Over 20 years, both states made a 19-point gain in 8th grade math and Kentucky maintains a 3-point lead. Looking at students at or above “basic,” Kentucky was at 51% in 1992 and is at 71% today while Tennessee was at 47% in 1992 and at 69% today. Kentucky gained 20 points and Tennessee, 22.
FREE/REDUCED LUNCH 8th GRADE MATH SCORES
KY 268 TN 265
KY 25 points TN 27 points
4th Grade Reading
1992 KY 213 TN 212
2013 KY 224 TN 220
Here, Kentucky makes an 11-point gain and Tennessee makes an 8-point gain over the same time period. Now, Kentucky has a solid 4-point lead in reading — while in 1992, it was just 1-point. In terms of students at or above “basic,” Kentucky was at 58% in 1992 and stands at 71% today while Tennessee was at 57% in 1992 and is now at 67% — Kentucky gained 13 points over this time, while Tennessee gained 10.
FREE/REDUCED LUNCH 4th GRADE READING SCORES
KY 213 TN 205
KY 24 points TN 32 points
8th Grade Reading
1998 KY 262 TN 259
2013 KY 270 TN 265
Here, Kentucky gained 8 points and Tennessee only 6 — giving Kentucky students a 5-point edge over Tennessee’s in 8th grade reading. Both states posted 6-point gains in percentage of students at or above “basic,” with Kentucky maintaining a 3-point edge in that category.
FREE/REDUCED LUNCH 8th GRADE READING SCORES
KY 258 TN 256
KY 23 TN 20
As the data shows, Kentucky and Tennessee in many cases posted similar net gains over time, with Kentucky seeing big jumps in the mid-90s and again in the early part of the last decade. In all categories, Kentucky’s students still outperform Tennessee, though in some cases that gap is narrowing. Also, in all subjects, Kentucky’s students on free/reduced lunch outperform Tennessee’s students on free/reduced lunch.
ABOUT THAT FREE LUNCH
Possibly the most interesting (and troubling) finding in this data is the widening of the gap between free/reduced lunch students and those not eligible. Tennessee has a significant population of students who qualify (as does Kentucky) and one of the key aims of reform is to ensure that gaps are closed and that those with the most challenges get more opportunity. Here’s some data demonstrating that Tennessee’s achievement gap is widening when it comes to its poorest students.
FREE/REDUCED LUNCH ACHIEVEMENT GAPS
4th Grade Math 2011 — 20 points 2013 – 26 points
8th Grade Math 2011 — 25 points 2013 – 27 points
4th Grade Reading 2011 — 26 points 2013 – 32 points
8th Grade Reading 2011 — 20 points 2013 – 20 points
The 4th grade scores in particular present rapidly widening gaps. That’s absolutely the wrong direction. Moreover, students on free/reduced lunch saw their scores improve less than those not on free/reduced lunch 3 points vs. 9 points in 4th grade math, 3 points vs. 5 points in 8th grade math, 1 point vs. 7 points in 4th grade reading, and both groups saw a +6 in 8th grade reading.
While we’re told that “poverty is not an excuse” it certainly appears to be a factor (and one growing in importance) in terms of student achievement growth in Tennessee. While we have had significant reforms in some of our poorest urban communities (and even have an Achievement School District to address the most challenged schools), the gap between poor and better off students widened in the last two years.
Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth. But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy. Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.
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