Students at Ford Road Elementary School, in Shelby County Schools' Innovation Zone, walk down the hallway on Thursday. The school's test scores have gone up dramatically since it entered the I-Zone.
Last Thursday, as state politicians and educators celebrated the state's performance on the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, 6th graders at Colonial Middle School, an arts-focused school, were discussing data day, a regular part of the school's cycle during which students in the middle school graph and track their performance in all of their classes.
"We can keep up with our grades," said Ariel Amos, one of the students. "The graphs help." Each student has a folder with a chart for each course; high scores were colored in with green colored pencil, while lower scores were colored in with yellow or red.
That focus on data and accountability was one of the policy emphases state officials cited to explain Tennessee students' growth on on the 4th and 8th grade math and reading tests: Scores went up more than in any other state in the country this year. While NAEP scores aren't broken down by school or by district, educators in Shelby County schools said they'd seen improvements in many local schools that lined up with the increase in NAEP results.
"NAEP is a good measuring stick to compare Tennessee to other states," said Antonio Burt, the principal at Ford Road Elementary School. "Tennessee has put emphasis on Common Core and teacher work. By Tennessee starting early and being proactive, now you're seeing dividends."
Tennessee students made some of the largest gains in the country in this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called "nation's report card."
Tennessee is "one of the few bright spots" in the NAEP data this year, said Erik Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Most states' scores increased by just one point in 4th and 8th grade math and 4th grade reading and by three points on 8th grade reading between 2011 and 2013. But scores for both 4th and 8th grade students in Tennessee jumped between 4 and 7 points in each of the tested subjects.
“It's hard to move the needle on all four grades and subjects unless you're really doing something,” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP.
In Tennessee, as elected officials planned press conferences today celebrating the increased scores that were released this morning, educators debated what, exactly, may have caused the growth.
Both the District of Columbia and Tennessee schools have been home to dramatic reforms in teacher compensation and evaluation in recent years, and were among the early adopters of policies that tie teacher pay and evaluations to student test scores. But similar policies are in place around the country now.
A national representative sample of 342,000 8th graders and 377,000 4th graders took the reading and math tests early this year. More data from the 2013 tests, including national scores for 12th graders in reading and math, will be released in the coming months.
Individual schools' and students' scores on NAEP are not publicized.
While each state has its own standardized test, each of which has changed over time, the NAEP remains relatively constant and is designed to allow for comparisons to be made between states and over time. State and education leaders use the data to compare where states fall academically and how different groups of students fare within their states. The data are also frequently used to make claims about national education progress compared to other countries, with some experts saying, for instance, that low NAEP scores are a threat to national security.
On the 2013 test, Tennessee students made the largest gains in the country in 4th and 8th grade reading. Tennessee 4th and 8th graders' math test score gains outpaced every state except for the District of Columbia. Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and Department of Defense schools were the only jurisdictions that saw increases in both tested subjects in both tested grades. (See chart below for more detail.)
Tennessee leads the nation in growth, but big disparities remain
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