Scores in

UPDATED: Urban districts score below statewide averages on new TNReady tests, with some bright spots

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

A new test hasn’t changed which Tennessee school districts are the top performers, and which districts struggle relative to the state as a whole.

The Tennessee Department of Education on Tuesday released district- and school-level TNReady scores from last school year while unveiling a redesigned online report card. The rollout follows last month’s release of statewide scores showing that the vast majority of high school students aren’t on track to be prepared for college. The new scores are only for high school students since Tennessee canceled its 3-8 tests in April following a series of technical and logistical snafus.

Across the state, scores were significantly down — a drop that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had warned was inevitable in the transition to more rigorous tests, designed to give a better snapshot of students’ readiness for college and career. The exception is science scores. The state is retaining older, easier tests for those subjects until new standards are phased in during the 2018-19 school year.

As in years past, most urban districts, which typically have a higher concentration of students from low-income households, had lower passing rates than the state as a whole on the 12 end-of-course tests.

McQueen reiterated Tuesday that educators shouldn’t be discouraged by the scores. “These scores show a student’s potential trajectory,” she said. “They are not a student’s destiny.”

While nearly three-quarters of students statewide and in urban districts failed most tests, Williamson County, an affluent suburb of Nashville, had a relatively even distribution of students scoring across the four levels. Still, scores for urban districts hewed close to the state’s in many instances, and in some cases, urban students did better than their statewide peers. Three out of Tennessee’s four urban districts received high growth marks in literacy, suggesting that their students are on track to catch up with higher-performing school systems.


Read Chalkbeat’s guide to understanding this year’s TNReady scores.


The performance of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district, lagged considerably compared to the state, with only 6.8 percent of students scoring on or above grade level in Algebra I, compared to 20.8 percent statewide. The gaps were smaller for English exams.

Students in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the second largest district, beat out statewide trends in Integrated Math II, where 28 percent of students passed compared to 23.8 percent statewide. Nashville shifted to Integrated Math — an alternative to Algebra I, II and Geometry — in 2015. Otherwise, the district’s scores also lagged the state’s as a whole.

Students in Knox County Schools, the third-largest district, outperformed the state as a whole on some of the new tests, with the widest margin in U.S. History. But, as was the case in virtually all districts, scores in Knox County were significantly down from last year’s across the board. Although the rebooted report card was supposed to be easier to understand, the district released an inaccurate statement on Tuesday morning that Knox County saw marked improvement.

In Hamilton County Schools, where one Chattanooga high school is among Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent and eligible for state takeover, passing rates for some subjects were within 1 percentage point of statewide scores, although none were above.

The gaps between statewide performance and the Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district with three high schools in Memphis, were among the largest. No ASD high school students scored at the highest level on the Algebra II exam, and less than 1 percent scored on grade level, compared to 2.6 percent and 21.4 percent of students scoring at each respective level statewide.

The state gave Shelby County, Metro Nashville, Hamilton County and the ASD the highest possible score for growth in literacy. For that measure, the state uses the complex Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which measures how students performed relative to how other students performed at the same level on past tests.  Knox County received a 3 out of 5 on literacy, but was the only district with a 5 in growth in numeracy.

Combatting Tennessee’s low literacy rate has been a state priority in recent years, and most districts have initiated their own reading improvement programs.

“While we would love to have 5s in all areas, our emphasis on literacy shows we can make positive gains,” said Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga. “Now we need to put the same emphasis on mathematics and science.”

McQueen said many districts struggled with growth in math because the test was so different. For the first time, calculators were prohibited for some questions.

“The depth of what the expectation was in terms of problem-solving … was very different,” she said. “When you take (the calculator) away, that’s going to be a real adjustment, a real change.”

The Department of Education has published an annual report card since the early 1990s to provide an overview of state, district and school-level performance. The new online report card was designed to help educators and families better understand information about their schools.

 “This new report card is easier to use and has better information about whether our students are academically on track, both of which will help parents, educators, district leaders, and advocates support our students’ success,” McQueen said in a news release. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include growth scores and comments from state and district leaders.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.