by Curtis Weathers —
The test results are in and the numbers paint a gloomy and troubling picture of the daunting challenges ahead for Tennessee schools in both the immediate and distant future.
As a former principal, whenever test scores arrived in my building, my staff would hide the data from me until they had a chance to review it and discuss how they would break the news to me about the results, especially if we came up short on a particular performance goal.
I usually was pretty grumpy while awaiting those results.
Unfortunately, things have not changed much for me. My stress levels have been extremely high while awaiting Shelby County Schools’ TCAP results. I’ve been experiencing the same level of anxiety as I did as a principal (sad face emoji).
But seeing the state results earlier this week gave me some momentary relief from my anxiety, but I won’t be satisfied until I see the SCS data as well.
Only one word came to mind when I first looked at the state’s performance results, and that word is “sobering.”
Most everyone expected the results to be extremely low, but I experienced a momentary feeling of despair when I first laid eyes on the actual numbers.
Since last year’s exams were canceled due to the pandemic, this year’s scores offer the first look in two years into student learning across the state.
While this year’s results will not be used to evaluate teachers or trigger state interventions in low-performing schools, some education leaders believe this could be the most crucial data ever produced under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP).
I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far. Next year’s data might claim that honor. But there was a bit of good news about our testing that deserves acknowledgment.
One of the most critical challenges faced by school systems throughout the nation this year was getting students to actually take the exams.
Participation is important. The more students take the tests, the more legitimate and actionable the data becomes.
Also, the easier it is to compare results from year to year, and it gives educators more confidence in making strategic investments and policy decisions going forward.
An estimated one in three students across the U.S. attended a school operating entirely remote. In addition, school officials across Tennessee thought that many of our parents would opt their children out of state testing because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
Remember, for this school year, these assessments had to be administered in person and paper/pencil format only for all students.
Fortunately, in Shelby County Schools and throughout the state, students showed up! The state reported that 95 percent of Tennessee’s testing population in grades 3-11 took their tests, reaching the nation’s standard participation threshold.
And all 147 districts met or exceeded the state’s 80 percent minimum participation rate.
In total, nearly 750,000 Tennessee public school students were tested.
Their performance, however, is another matter.
Tennessee saw a five percent decrease in proficiency overall since 2019 and across-the-board drops in proficiency in all core subjects and across all demographic groups.
As expected, progress in math and reading declined significantly.
Math scores fell 12 percent since 2019, and scores in English language arts dropped by six percentage points over the same period.
Only 29 percent of Tennessee students are on grade level in English language arts, and only about a fourth are on grade level in math.
In science, performance dropped by a third, with only 38 percent of students demonstrating proficiency. The declines in science were larger than in any other subject area.
The smallest decline was in social studies, where only 3 percent fewer students met grade-level expectations.
Predictably, Black, Latino and low-income students in high-poverty schools were hit the hardest.
Drops in performance were steeper in districts that provided most of their instruction online, instead of in person, which is not a huge surprise.
But some politicians already are beginning to weaponize this particular data point to chastise school systems that prioritize safety and extended virtual learning longer than some of them wanted.
However, my biggest concern is with our younger second and third-grade student population, who saw some of the more significant declines.
For example, more than half of Tennessee second graders, who are not required to take TCAP assessments, took an optional test that showed a whopping 11 percent drop in proficiency.
Only 32 percent of our third graders, who are required to take TCAP assessments, performed on grade level in English language arts, compared to 38 percent in 2019.
In the end, no one is surprised by these outcomes. The pandemic, as expected, substantially widened pre-pandemic gaps in test scores by race and economic status.
While the results across our state and, yes, the entire nation is indeed “sobering,” I think we as a community need to look back and appreciate what we’ve accomplished over the past two years.
We should look beyond our test results and celebrate students, teachers and families’ perseverance and resilience during a year when we all have been consumed with the nuances of a whole new teaching and learning paradigm – virtually learning.
For SCS Supt. Joris Ray, keeping his students, teachers and support team healthy and safe was a major priority.
There are no national or state-level metrics to measure the district’s success for that particular objective. But they did a great job!
As preparations continue for the start of the 2021-22 school year, let’s keep our teachers, students and support personnel in our prayers. School starts next week (Aug.9).
This pandemic, unfortunately, is not over. So, get vaccinated, people, and let’s have a GREAT 2021 school year!
(View the Spring 2021 TCAP results at https://bit.ly/2VqYjC7.)
(Curtis Weathers is the education columnist for The New Tri-State Defender.)