After scores fall, one ASD school says sole focus on Common Core hurt TCAP results

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Jonathon Verry and Trumaine Gholson in a math class at Aspire's new school at Coleman Elementary.

When Kristin Cornwell, a 4th grade teacher at Aspire Hanley 1, a charter school in Orange Mound, started evaluating her students in math this year, she thought they were the best prepared of any group she’d seen in her four years at the school.

“I saw a huge difference in students’ conceptual understanding of math,” she said. “They could explain why they were doing different things.”

But those same fourth graders’ scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, the state’s standardized test, were significantly lower than the scores of students who had been there the year before.

In 2013, Memphis public school Hanley Elementary was taken over by the state-run Achievement School District and split into two Aspire charter schools, with new staffs and programs but similar enrollment, on the same campus. Since the takeover, the percent of students scoring proficient or advanced on state tests has dropped precipitously.

In 2012-13, before the takeover, 22.7 percent of Hanley Elementary’s tested students scored proficient or advanced in math and 10.4 percent were proficient or advanced in reading.

In 2013-14, 9.9 percent of students at Hanley 1 scored proficient or advanced in math, and just 5.2 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. At Hanley 2, 6.3 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math and 4.7 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. That placed both schools in the state’s lowest category for student growth in both subjects.

Aspire’s scores were the lowest in the ASD, which takes over schools academically ranked in the bottom 5 percent of in the state in an attempt to improve them.

School leaders’ and teachers’ explanation: Aspire chose to prepare students only for tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee adopted in 2010, rather than for TCAP, which was written to match an older set of standards. Aspire said both the content of the TCAP and its form (bubble-in, pencil-and-paper tests) were different than what students practiced all year (online tests, more open-ended questions).

“The theory was that we were going to make progress by jumping into Common Core,” said Allison Leslie, the director of Aspire’s schools in Memphis. “That didn’t prove to be the case. We’re disappointed but not surprised.”

Ilana Horn, a professor at the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, said in an email that Aspire’s attributing the drop in scores to Common Core standards did seem surprising: “The analyses I have seen say that Common Core Standards are at a higher level than the old Tennessee state standards. If they had prepared the children for CCSS, they would presumably be ahead in the curriculum.”

She said there could be some validity to the explanation if the new tests were less “reflective of what they had done in class” or if the new, more rigorous standards were less accessible to students.

Tennessee had planned to begin using PARCC, an online test tied to the Common Core standards, rather than TCAP, starting this school year. Rather than spending a single year after the takeover at Hanley preparing students for TCAP, Aspire’s school leaders went all in with PARCC preparation.

Then the state’s legislature voted last spring to require the state to administer TCAP in 2014-15, and to reevaluate whether to use PARCC at all.

The state has adjusted the TCAP in an effort to make the tests more closely aligned to the Common Core, which aims to focus on fewer subjects in more depth each year. Average scores across Tennessee rose this year in most tested subjects.

Now Aspire is tying its curriculum to the standards tested on TCAP and specifically preparing students for TCAP-style questions, hoping to boost scores in the next round of tests. “We’re going to get the tested standards in,” said Megan McGrail, the principal at Hanley 1.

Most Tennessee schools did not go as far as Aspire in moving toward PARCC-style assessment and away from TCAP preparation. But schools across Tennessee have been in a state of limbo, aligning lessons and instruction with one set of standards while being evaluated using a test that was initially designed based on another.

The state’s largest teachers association and both the Nashville and Shelby County superintendents have said the discrepancy between test and standards is a problem. Chris Barbic, superintendent of the ASD, said in an interview, “we’ve got to know that the assessment we’re being held accountable to—teachers, schools, districts—lines up with what the state’s expecting us to teach.”

Shelby County Schools, and most districts in the state, provided a curriculum guide tied both to the old and new standards. “If a teacher followed the pacing guide, they would have been prepared,” said Shawn Page, the principal of White Station Middle School in Shelby County Schools. Students at White Station are assessed throughout the year with tests similar in format to the TCAP while also practicing the more open-ended questions favored on Common Core-based tests, he said.

Aspire’s dramatic drop in scores will have fewer consequences for adults in the building than similar changes might have in other schools: Unlike Shelby County Schools and most other districts in the state, Aspire does not tie TCAP scores to teacher evaluations. And since it was just taken over by the ASD, the school is not facing another dramatic restructuring for at least two more years.

But, Cornwell said, “the painful thing is, even though that’s not Aspire’s evaluation, test scores are still how the state of Tennessee values and puts a number on a teacher and a school,” she said.

Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, in Orange Mound.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, in Orange Mound.

Leslie said that internal surveys of the employee, student and parent satisfaction and students’ scores on other reading assessments led her to believe that the school is on the right track and will do better on the next round of tests. The school also uses a blended learning model that uses online and classroom curriculum McGrail said would prepare students for online assessments, if and when they replace the current test.

“What we did is disruptive,” Leslie said. “We think we’ll see incremental changes. It’s like the tortoise-and-the-hare.”

Cornwell said that she had seen the school shift from focusing mainly on TCAP preparation to introducing Common Core-style instruction in 2012-13; and then moving entirely to Common Core under new leadership. “I have been here long enough for the pendulum to swing all the way.”

“Every year it’s that balance of, how do we teach that deep conceptual understanding we know is best for kids and will prepare them for college—and still get them ready so they can prove to the state of Tennessee that they’re growing and learning?”


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”