Of Hope and TNReady

Natalie Coleman is a 7th grade language arts teacher in Sumner County and a 2015-16 Tennessee Hope Street Group Fellow.

Are we ready?

This question is front-and-center in the conversation surrounding education in Tennessee.

This is the question ringing in classrooms across the state, the question plaguing teachers working tirelessly to adjust instruction to more rigorous expectations, striving to help students reach heights monumentally higher than they’ve ever been asked to, much less prepared to, before.

This is the question of parents, nervous their children’s scores will not be as high as they’re accustomed to, worried that everything they’ve heard about the standards and Race to the Top and the over-testing is true, worried that the changes happening in our state may not be good for our children.

This is the question of students whose target has been moved each year, who have been told TCAP counts as a grade (and that it doesn’t), that it’s the last year for TCAP tests (and that it’s not), and that now it is time for us to be TNReady. As a state, we have even branded our new test with a name that echoes our question—Are we ready? Are we TNReady?

For anyone in the state closely connected to education, TNReady is a name that carries with it fear of the unknown, of unrealistic standards, and of unwarranted pressures on teachers, parents, and students. At the same time, though, it resonates with the hope of what we as a state want to achieve—readiness in our students.

We want them to be ready for the next steps in their educations and in their lives. We want them to be prepared to succeed. We do not want to continue reading that students in the first Tennessee Promise cohort aren’t making it, even when college is free, because it’s “too hard.” We do not want to continue hearing from employers that Tennessee’s young workforce is simply not ready.

I will admit that, as a teacher, I am nervous about TNReady because of the pressure it puts on my students. I fear that my classroom will progressively become more and more of a test preparation center and less of a place where students can cultivate creativity, curiosity, interest, and wonder. I am concerned that the testing may take too much of our time and focus, may not be developmentally appropriate, may not be amply vetted, may overwhelm our low-budget school technology resources. I believe that teacher and parent groups are right to raise questions and concerns, right to warn that TNReady may not itself be ready and that its incorporation into student grades and teacher evaluations is problematic and potentially unfair.

Yet, the prospect of TNReady also fills me with hope because of the aspiration it represents. As a state, we have said that it’s time for our students to be ready, time to stop selling them short with watered-down standards and bubble-sheet assessments, time to do what’s necessary for our students to be able to read and write at levels that will make them ready for the literacy demands of college and careers.

In the previous six years I’ve taught, I’ve felt a great tension between what I believe has always been the heart of our language arts standards and how those standards were ultimately assessed. At first, I idealistically believed that teaching language arts the way I learned to teach—authentically and deeply rooted in reading and writing—would automatically translate to test success as well. My achievement levels and TVAAS scores told a different story. Over time, I learned that achieving the desired results required shifting gears to TCAP-specific strategies and drills as the test approached. Test scores improved greatly, but I don’t know what my students actually gained, besides a good score, from those weeks of lessons.

Now, though, my students are preparing for TNReady Part I, a test that will require them to read rigorous texts and synthesize the information from them into a sophisticated essay. This new test has the potential to be one that matches the authenticity I strive for in my classroom.

When I tell my students that the writing we are doing in class right now is to prepare not only for TNReady Part I but for many kinds of writing they will need to do in the future, I can mean it. The skills we are honing to prepare for this test are skills that will help them write successfully in high school, on AP exams, for college admissions essays, in college classes, and even in their careers.

Right now in Tennessee, because of our raised standards and the assessments that come with them, our students are learning skills that will make them ready. I believe this and hope for more growth because of the amazing growth that I’ve already seen.

As our state has undergone massive educational shifts, our students have borne the changes and adapted. When we first began piloting text-based essay prompts a few years ago in my district, many of the students in my class stared at them blankly, merely copied the text word-for-word, or wrote a half-page “essay” that displayed a complete misunderstanding of the task. The writing was often missing the basic components of topic sentences, indention, or even separating paragraphs at all. As I worked to help my students prepare in those early days, for tests that were pilots, my students groaned when we were “writing again.” Even though I worked to make writing fun and to give students opportunities to write for genuine purposes throughout the year, writing assessment preparation was an arduous task for everyone, and students were often frustrated.

Each year, though, the frustration has diminished a bit. In the beginning, just making sure students learned the basics of an essay format seemed an impossible task; now, they come to me knowing how to tackle prompts and organize their thoughts into paragraphs. There is still much room for growth, but where my students start every year and where they end are both well beyond those markers for the class before. Each year is better and better, and—best of all—the groaning is gone. Put two complex texts and a writing prompt in front of my students now, and they set right to work, staying focused for over an hour at a time, writing away. They’re open to revision and work to make changes. They ask for help, and they take pride in making their writing the best they can.

This is progress I would have considered miraculous three years ago, yet it is commonplace now, and I am grateful for the growth I see in students’ abilities each year.

When February comes and brings with it text-based writing tasks for my seventh graders that look more like something I would have learned to do in pre-AP classes in high school, when April comes with a second computer-based test, this one filled with rigorous and lengthy texts to read and a large dose of an entirely new breed of multi-select, drop-down box, click-and-drag multiple choice questions, will my students be ready?

I am not sure that they will be completely ready. Yet.

No matter how my students score on TNReady this year, though, they are undoubtedly stronger for what we’ve done. No matter what problems we encounter with the test and what we need to do to fix it, I hope we never lose sight of the goal behind it. I hope we keep our standards high, I hope we keep striving to make our assessments authentic measures of the skills we want our students to attain, and I hope we see that the end result is students who are ready.

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