The TN Poverty Test

TCAP is Tennessee’s standardized test for grades 3-8.  At least until next year, when it is replaced with something designed by Measurement, Inc. that meets new Tennessee Standards.

TCAP stand for Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.  But, it could just as easily stand for Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment of Poverty.

Here’s why:

An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.

Much attention was focused on Tennessee and our “rapid gains” on the NAEP. Less celebrated by state officials was the attendant expansion of the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

One possible explanation for the expanding achievement gap is the investment gap among districts. That is, those districts with lower levels of poverty (the ones scoring higher on TCAP) also tend to invest funds in their schools well above what the state funding formula (BEP) generates. The top ten districts on TCAP performance spend 20% or more above what the BEP formula generates. By contrast, the bottom 10 districts spend 5% or less above the formula dollars.

It’s no accident that the districts that spend more are those with less poverty while the districts with less investment above the BEP have higher poverty levels. And, I’ve written recently about the flaws in the present BEP system that signal it is well past time to reform the formula and increase investment.

Of further interest is an analysis of 3-year ACT averages. Here again, 9 of the top 10 districts on ACT performance spend well above the state average in per pupil spending. The top 10 districts in ACT average spend an average of $900 more per student than the state’s average per pupil expenditure.

And, on ACT scores again, those districts with the highest poverty rates make the least investment above BEP dollars and typically see results below the state average ACT score.

While Tennessee may be moving to a new test in 2016, it’s not clear yet whether that test will do more than identify the poverty level and education investment of the state’s school districts.

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