Tennessee Kids Can’t Read

That’s the narrative you hear coming from policymakers and some advocates who suggest Tennessee’s third grade reading scores indicate trouble. While there is certainly room for improvement, the rest of the available information simply does not align with these claims. Here’s an example of one such claim from the Tennessee Department of Education regarding third- and fourth-grade reading scores:

Overall, less than half of our third and fourth graders are reading on grade level based on state tests

As former educator and state legislator Gloria Johnson explains, that’s simply not the case based on available evidence:

The 2019 NAEP scores are out, they test kids a few months in to the 4th grade year. The 2019 test shows that 66% of TN 4th (3 1/2) graders are reading on grade level. Sure, I’d like to see it higher, we have work to do. In 8th grade it’s 73%.

However, when you hear someone say only 33% of 3rd graders are reading on grade level (and I hear it constantly), how could that be possible? How could 33% more get on grade level in a couple of months? Are our 4th grade teachers wizards?

No, people either don’t understand how to read the results or they are intentionally being misleading. According to NAEP’s groupings, Basic means reading on grade level. Proficient on NAEP means “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter,” which experts interpret as high achievement.

What does that mean? 66% of kids read on grade level on the NAEP test. Don’t let someone try to give you that lower number, it’s not accurate, correct them.

You can see the 2019 scores here..


Now I just have to get the Education Committee on board because the “experts” feeding them info aren’t very expert.

You can find plenty of articles explaining this, here is one.

Johnson raises a great point: If NAEP says 66% of our kids are reading at grade level in fourth grade, why does TNReady suggest less than half of third graders read at grade level? These numbers don’t match.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Still Too Much Testing

That’s the word from Maryville’s Director of Schools Mike Winstead.

Winstead, a member of Commissioner Candice McQueen’s assessment task force, told the group he believed reductions in testing time going into effect this year still create a climate of over-testing.

Winstead made his remarks during a recent meeting of the task force, according to a report by Grace Tatter.

Here’s what Winstead had to say about the current climate of testing in Tennessee:

“When we look at the states we’re chasing and trying to catch on NAEP and move up the ladder, I’d guess there’s none that test as much as (Tennessee does),” he said. “More tests are not going to help us catch them.”

Winstead said time spent testing has increased dramatically over the last five years, and this year’s reductions just bring the state back to a previous level of over-testing, rather than solving the problem.

It’s interesting that Winstead’s remarks suggest he believes we were testing too much even before implementation of Race to the Top and the Common Core/TNReady transition.

Winstead also has a point. While Tennessee had a good showing on NAEP in 2013, the 2015 results suggest that may have been an anomaly.

When the 2015 NAEP results were released, I compared them to 2013’s results and noted:

Note here that what I suggested then [2013] was an expected result (big gain, followed by holding steady) is exactly what happened in Tennessee this year [2015]. That’s good news — it means we’re not declining. But it also means we can’t really say that 2013 was something special. As I noted last year, Kentucky had a series of big gains in the 1990s and then again in the early 2000s. It wasn’t just a big bump one time. So far, Tennessee has had one banner year (2013) and this year, returned to normal performance.

This gets to Winstead’s point. Does an emphasis on testing make us more competitive with other states? Probably not. The NAEP is administered every other year to a random sample of students. It’s the gold standard in terms of scientific data on student performance. Recent results in Tennessee suggest a move in the right direction and an especially nice bump in 2013. But our results are not unique to states that test as much as we do. And we still trail states that place less emphasis on testing.

I’m going to go a step further than what Winstead explicitly said and surmise that he’d suggest we further reduce testing and focus more time on teaching and learning based on our state’s new, higher standards.

Some policymakers would suggest that won’t give us enough data — but we get reliable data every two years from the NAEP. I understand the desire to test all students every year, and federal policy requires this in some form from grades 3-12. But the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also gives us an opportunity to propose innovative strategies and request a waiver from some requirements.

Tennessee should take advantage of the opportunity provided by ESSA and the current state climate around testing, including the task force, and pursue a new strategy that focuses on student learning rather than student testing.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport