Test Progress Bolsters Haslam’s Education Reform Aspirations

By Bill Dries

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam picked up more statistics last week for his arsenal in the political battle over education reform in Tennessee.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, from left, Kevin Huffman and Dorsey Hopson appeared at John P. Freeman Optional School last week.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

And he touted the statewide growth rate in the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress results at a Memphis school – a poignant choice because Shelby County is the epicenter for the reform efforts Haslam has made his own in the last three years after his predecessor, Gov. Phil Bredesen, began the effort in his second term of office.

“I think maybe the best thing he did for Tennessee while he was there was change the expectations,” Haslam said of Bredesen during the Thursday, Nov. 7, visit to John P. Freeman Optional School in Whitehaven.

Haslam touted the federal funding Tennessee has been getting for several years that goes toward the state-run Achievement School District and Innovation Zone schools in the Shelby County Schools system – both efforts aimed specifically at the lowest performing schools.

“Funding obviously played a role,” Haslam said. “But I think far bigger than that was changing our expectation level.”

The NAEP results are based on a statistically significant sample of students in 100 to 200 schools across Tennessee as compared to similar samples from other states.

The samples are of student achievement in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, and all 50 states have the same data. Add the demographics of the students and the report breaks down student achievement and the growth in that achievement and proficiency overall, by race and for students living in poverty as measured by those qualifying for federal lunch assistance programs.

Last week’s state-by-state rankings were not broken down by school districts within the states.

Each state gets an average “scale score” across all subject areas, and Tennessee’s scale score grew by 22 points to 2013 from 2011, the largest growth of any state in the decade-long history of the test. By the ratings, Tennessee had been in the low to mid 40s among the 50 states in fourth-grade math and reading and eighth-grade math and reading in 2011.

The 2013 results showed the state improved in all four categories. Tennessee jumped to 37th from 46th in fourth-grade math; to 31st from 41st in fourth-grade reading; to 43rd from 45th in eighth-grade math; and to 34th from 41st in eighth-grade reading.

“This is not a test that you can … somehow rig in some way,” Haslam said. “Not only did we have the fastest improving results of any state in the country. We had the fastest improving results of any state since they began doing these tests 10 years ago. That’s phenomenal achievement.”

The state improved an average of 5.5 points per test, which Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said equates to improvement for students by half a grade level in proficiency.

The growth was more for African-American students. Haslam and Huffman said those results and the general results wouldn’t have been possible without growth in what is the state’s largest public school system and the state’s largest percentage of African-American students.

“There is no way to get good results in the state of Tennessee without getting good results in Memphis and Shelby County,” Huffman said.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson agreed, saying the statewide results “show we knocked it out of the park.”

“We could not get there without our students showing significant growth,” Hopson said.

Huffman, in particular, has taken the brunt of criticism from critics of the fast-paced education reforms at the state level in the last four years, which include Common Core standards, an end to collective bargaining for teachers and a longer period before the state grants tenure to teachers.

“We’re trying to take on this dual thing of growing everybody more and growing students who are further behind even further, which is a really ambitious thing to do,” Huffman said, adding he expects to see the gains made with younger children translate into higher achievement in later grades as those students move into high school.

“We feel like we’re close to seeing some of this play out in high schools for us,” Huffman said. “That’s sort of the next big step for us.”

Haslam, who wheeled a tray containing a cake and cupcakes into the school library to mark the state’s rankings, said the celebration is marking a point in a transition that isn’t complete.

“I’ve always believed no matter what you are doing you should have a way to keep score. … I’m not saying it’s time to spike the ball like we are in the end zone,” he said. “We want to show that we can really provide better outcomes.”