This article is written by Jamie Woodson, President and CEO of SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education). Prior to leading SCORE, she served for more than 12 years in the Tennessee General Assembly in both the House and Senate, including Chairman of the Senate Education Committee and later as Senate Speaker Pro Tempore.
When I came to the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) in 2011, Tennessee had just put into policy a set of bold education reforms. Policymakers were appropriately excited about their work. Yet we all know that education policy changes are only words on paper until these policies are brought to life by leaders in schools and teachers in classrooms. That same year I left my role as a member of the Tennessee General Assembly with the goal of contributing to helping Tennessee turn these important policies into practices that boost student achievement.
Over the last year, some have been questioning – and at times attacking – Tennessee’s decision to raise academic expectations for students by raising academic standards, one of several foundational policies that have helped launch our students to historic and unprecedented gains in English and math. Others have tried to put the brakes on new assessments which seek to more authentically and accurately measure how our students are doing. While the debate has been lively and sometimes loud, it hasn’t always been enlightening. Quite simply, misinformation about how Tennessee chose this path has been widespread.
To put it bluntly, Tennessee decided in 2007 to start being honest with parents, policy makers, and students. We had been measuring our students by our homegrown academic standards and assessments, which were low in rigor compared to other states. While our state test results said nearly nine out of ten Tennessee eighth-graders were proficient in math, the national measuring stick said it was barely two out of ten. This disconnect earned us an F in truth and advertising and an F for postsecondary and workforce readiness in the 2007 Leaders and Laggards report card on education effectiveness.
Those failing grades, plus sound research showing how higher standards help lead to higher proficiency rates, spurred our leaders to raise Tennessee’s rock-bottom academic expectations. The first step came in 2008, when the Tennessee State Board of Education approved the Tennessee Diploma Project, a multi-state effort to improve college and career readiness. Schools began implementing the Diploma Project standards in August 2009, when students who would participate in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were in the first or fifth grade.
Just as Tennessee began moving forward, new opportunities emerged to accelerate our momentum. One of them was the Common Core State Standards, which like the Diploma Project grew from state policymakers looking to work together to address the fact that schools in the U.S. were falling behind other nations. Already committed to helping our students advance, Tennessee took the logical next step by joining the Common Core effort in 2009 and adopting these new standards in 2010.
Tennessee began using the new standards in grades K-2 in August 2011. After summer training for 13,000 math teachers, schools began using the higher math standards in grades 3-8 and a pilot of the English language arts standards in August 2012. The NAEP assessments were administered in early 2013 to a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders, and in November we learned that the gains they showed made Tennessee the fastest-improving state for academic achievement.
This history shows the flaw in the claim that Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards are moving us forward too fast. We have been incrementally raising standards since 2007, longer than most of us have had our smartphones. This timeline also shows why it is not practical or wise to pause or roll back our progress in raising standards. We have trained more than 43,000 educators; we have fully implemented Common Core; and our students are seeing early signs of progress.
With the standards in use in all grades and schools, educators and parents need assessments that accurately measure student learning, and our schools will be ready to take that step this fall. The Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) assessment will replace the current TCAP test for math and English in grades 3-11. PARCC goes far beyond the usual multiple choice test to measure student comprehension in multiple ways. It will includes questions that require students to provide an answer by writing an essay or graphing a problem, rather than simply picking an answer. To try a sample set of PARCC questions in both math and English, click here and then go to Sample Items at the top of the page.
PARCC is also a unique test in that Tennessee has helped build the assessment and representatives of our state have had a seat at the table for every important decision. Postsecondary and K-12 educators from Tennessee have had unprecedented input in helping to write the assessments, and Tennessee public colleges and universities have agreed to accept the PARCC assessment results as indicators of college readiness.
Most Tennesseans are not as engaged in the discussion about Common Core and PARCC as the readers of this blog. Parents, in particular, deserve to know the real history and to understand how these higher standards and new assessments are designed to help their students.
The bottom line is that Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards are designed to prepare students for success after high school by teaching them to be lifelong learners: how to read and comprehend complex material, how to think through problems and show the evidence that led to their conclusions, and how to write clearly and persuasively. I believe our state’s new assessments will provide a better, fairer, and more authentic measure of whether students are meeting the standards. Altogether it means that for the first time, parents can rest assured that when Tennessee tells them their students are proficient, it’s the truth.