Does TCAP Measure Proficiency or Poverty?

Ken Chilton, a professor at Tennessee State University, has a column in yesterday’s Chattanooga Times-Free Press in which he theorizes that poverty is a much better predictor of student performance on TCAP than teacher performance or other school-based factors.

Moreover, Chilton argues that the current emphasis on testing is misplaced and that frequent changes in standards and tests prevent meaningful long-term trend analysis.

He says:

Despite the proclamations of systemic failure, we don’t have enough longitudinal data to really know what is or is not working. The standards and the tests used to measure success change frequently. Consequently, it’s difficult to compare apples to apples. So, when scores change in one year we tend to mistake one data point for a trend by touting success or placing blame. Yet, most of us don’t know what proficiency means.

And he laments the expectations game played by policymakers and state education leaders:

Educators are under immense pressure to show improvement. Resources, careers and jobs are on the line. But, is it realistic to expect big jumps in proficiency from one academic year to the next, to the next and to the next? No, it’s incredibly unrealistic. And, it sets up a series of public expectations that are crushed year after year.

These unmet expectations contribute to the false perception that public schools are broken and thus are undeserving of additional tax revenues.

As for education reforms that get much attention in our state, Chilton says:

…but the annual TCAP gnashing of the teeth suggests that our expectations are out of whack with reality. None of the education reforms implemented in Tennessee address the underlying root causes that threaten the viability of our public schools — inequality.

Chilton’s analysis and claims regarding inequality and the impact of poverty are supported by (admittedly short-term) analysis of TCAP data from the top- and bottom-performing districts in the state:

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.

Additional analysis suggests:

The top 10 districts spend an average of 3 times more than the bottom 10 in terms of investment over the BEP formula. They also have an ACT average that is 5 points higher and a TCAP average that is nearly 20 points higher than the bottom ten.

In short, as Chilton suspects, there is a glaring inequality in terms of the educational opportunities offered Tennessee students. Add to that a growing inadequacy in terms of state investment in schools, and you have a recipe for certain failure.

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