What Tennessee’s ACT Data Say

The latest ACT results for Tennessee show progress in college and career readiness of graduates and reflect the impact of the work by the state to encourage seniors to retake the exam. Across subject areas on the college-entrance exam, performance rose in notable ways.

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) reported that a calculation based on students’ best scores lifted the statewide average composite score to 20.1 on the exam’s 36-point scale, a 0.2 increase from 19.9 last year. Still, these results should also be considered in the context of results released by the ACT organization in early September. Both the TDOE and ACT data have important insights to offer.

ACT’s report on the Condition of College and Career Readiness in Tennessee details the college-ready benchmark scores that analysts at ACT have determined a student would need to clear to demonstrate they are ready for college-level work in English, reading, math, and science. The report’s analysis, therefore, focuses on the proportion of students who met or exceeded those subject-area benchmark scores. By ACT’s accounting, just 19 percent of high school graduates in Tennessee last year were college-ready across all four core subject areas, compared to 27 percent of graduates nationally. Further, almost 40 percent of Tennessee test-takers did not score at a college-ready level on any subject area. This figure has remained the same over the past three years.

Rather than focus on how many students surpass scientifically determined benchmark scores, Tennessee as a state is focused on achieving a strategic goal: an average statewide composite score of 21 by 2020. This year’s rise to an average composite of 20.1 represents an important mile marker on this journey.

A look at public school test-takers’ data as reported by ACT last year, however, shows an average composite of 19.4. Why the difference? ACT reports include all test-takers’ most recent scores. Rather than use this measure, the state has commissioned a report based on a student’s best score—the score institutions of higher education would consider for a student’s application. The TDOE also removes from consideration test-takers who did not ultimately graduate from high school, while those test results are reflected in the ACT’s reporting. Tennessee recorded an all-time high graduation rate of nearly 90 percent in 2017.

By any measure, however, ACT results also show how far Tennessee has to go in preparing all students for success beyond high school graduation day. Although the state-offered retake opportunity last fall enabled 40 percent of 26,000 test-takers to increase their scores and 1,800 to surpass the 21 composite score they needed to qualify for up to $16,000 in HOPE scholarship funds from the state, wide disparities still separate student groups.

Among results released by the TDOE, about 42 percent of test-takers scored 21 or above, while about 43 percent scored below 19. In comparison, half of white students scored 21 or above, while a third scored below 19. The reverse trend was true for black and Hispanic/Latino students.

Results also show wide gaps across economic backgrounds. Almost two-thirds of students identified as economically disadvantaged scored below 19; only one-third of non-economically disadvantaged students did so.

Similarly stark gaps appear when looking at results comparing students with disabilities and those without recognized disabilities.

Tennessee is home to a small, but rapidly growing and diverse population of English language learner students. Results from English learners show fewer than one-in-ten scored 21 or above.

ACT’s Condition of College and Career Readiness report again shows the urgent need for better preparing students from historically underserved populations—students of color, low-income students, those with disabilities, and English learners. As SCORE has noted previously, results have consistently shown over recent years that just 10 percent of African American students and only about 20 percent of Hispanic/Latino students demonstrate college readiness in at least three core subject areas.

Regardless of the measures used, we know that far too many students of all backgrounds across our state leave high school without the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the college or career of their choosing. Making gains on this front is extremely difficult work, and all progress is welcome. And while Tennessee has made important progress toward the goal of a statewide average ACT composite score of 21 by 2020, the longer-term, pressing goal for our state and its economy to have more than half of Tennesseans holding a postsecondary credential by 2025 will be difficult to reach as long as the lack of preparedness persists.

Better Health For Better Learning

“There is an undeniable connection between education and health. That’s why now, more than ever, we need a public education system producing more high school graduates who are better prepared for a career or college and life.” These words were written by Senator Bill Frist, MD,  the founder and chairman of SCORE, in 2011. They remain true today.

Recognizing the undeniable link between a student’s health and his or her ability to learn, as well as the higher quality of life enjoyed by people with higher education levels, SCORE has spent the last year looking into research on these issues and partnering with NashvilleHealth, also founded by Senator Frist, to hold the Better Health, Better Learning statewide summit next month.

In advance of the summit, which will bring together policymakers and leaders from K-12, higher education, public health, and philanthropic communities, SCORE recently released a new research brief, Better Health, Better Learning: Research On Improving Student Health And Academic Success. To inform this brief, members of our team read through years of research on the connections between student health, educational outcomes, and adult health tied to educational attainment. Based on our review, we identify for key findings:

• Physical activity, nutrition, and overall well-being can have a profound effect on student achievement.
• High-quality education and academic achievement are associated with improved health outcomes later in life.
• Mental and emotional health are critical for student success.
• Investing in student health leads to short- and long-term economic benefits.

This is a critical time to address the health needs of Tennessee’s students. Compared to their peers nationally, young Tennesseans are less likely to eat nutritious foods on a regular basis, more likely to have children of their own as teenagers, and more likely to smoke, experience emotional, behavioral, or developmental challenges, and more likely to have asthma. During the 2015-16 school year, more than 226,000 students in Tennessee public schools had a chronic illness or disability diagnosis. That’s more than one-in-five students in our state’s schools. Many students also confront trauma outside of school, ranging from having a parent incarcerated to substance abuse or violence in the home. All of these conditions and experiences can negatively affect a student’s ability to reach his full potential at school.

Although all students in Tennessee need support for their physical, emotional, and mental well-being, data from our state show stark disparities across race/ethnicity, household income, and geographic location. African American parents in Tennessee are more than twice as likely as white parents to report their children are not in excellent or very good health; Hispanic/Latino parents are nearly four times as likely. Rural students—that’s one-in-three students in Tennessee—have higher rates of obesity and slightly higher rates of mental health challenges than their more urban peers. Statewide, the rate of children living in poverty increased over the years 2010-14 from 13 percent to 16 percent. We know that in rural and urban communities alike, low-income students are more likely to have chronic health problems.

Poor health conditions can lead students to have higher rates of absence, and the more instructional time they miss, the harder it is for them to catch up. Data from the Tennessee Department of Education show “almost 45,000, or 10 percent, of Tennessee K-3 students missed at least a month of school days during the 2014-15 school year.” That year, only about 40 percent of chronically absent third-graders reached proficiency in math, compared to more than 60 percent of students who were not chronically absent. In reading, only 44 percent of students who were not chronically absent reached proficiency in reading. But that rate was just 28 percent for chronically absent peers.

The costs to student achievement and to the state compel a collective effort across the public education, public health, business, and philanthropic sectors to focus on improving student health and student achievement. Innovative approaches like using video-conferencing technology can help expand access to health professionals for students in rural areas. Investments in resources for parents and families, as well as to ensure all students have access to healthy foods, can be life-changing for students in rural and urban communities alike. The work to address and improve the health and achievement of Tennessee students is as needed and urgent as ever. Research can guide the way, but action must be taken to ensure the best future for our kids.

ACT Update: Indicators of College and Career Readiness in Tennessee

As one of 18 states in which 100 percent of graduating high school seniors have taken the ACT college entrance examination, ACT scores represent an important indicator of college and career readiness in Tennessee. This year, more than 63,000 public high school graduates statewide took the exam—an increase of more than 3,000 test-takers from 2015—and the published results provide data needed to understand how well our schools are preparing young people for success in postsecondary and career opportunities. Results provide both good news and compelling evidence for the need to do more.

The ACT includes four sections: English, reading, mathematics, and science, with different score cutoffs set for each section to determine whether students are prepared for college-level success (grade C or higher) in each subject. Statewide, 20 percent of test-takers scored at college-ready levels across all four areas, trailing the national average of 26 percent. Compared to their peers in neighboring states in which all graduating seniors took the ACT, a higher percentage of Tennessee students scored at college-ready levels in all four subject areas than those in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Only Missouri had a higher proportion of students who met all four benchmarks. Looking only at public schools in Tennessee, 17 percent of their graduates scored at or above college-ready benchmarks in all subject areas; those graduates received an average composite score of 19.4 on the ACT’s 36-point scale.

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Rigorous Course-Taking

As noted by ACT last year, students who complete rigorous courses of study in high school have substantially higher odds of scoring at college-ready ACT levels than their peers who do not. Across all subject areas, students completing the most rigorous available courses of study consistently scored at college-ready benchmarks at higher rates than their peers completing other course sequences.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Students identifying across all racial and ethnic populations in Tennessee scored at levels below national averages, but the average score among black students within Tennessee of 16.5 trails those of their Hispanic peers by nearly 2 points and of their white peers by 4 full points. Of note, the number of students choosing not to indicate a racial/ethnic identity has more than doubled from 2,564 to 6,492 between 2014 and 2016. The average composite score for those students in 2016 was 17.9.

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In addition, compared to 2012 rates, 4 percent more Asian and 4 percent more white students in 2016 scored above college-ready benchmark levels in three or all four subject areas. These results represent a 2 percentage point decline, however, for Asian students and the same level of readiness among white students compared to last year. Only one in five Hispanic students scored at college-ready levels in three or more subject areas, and still fewer than one in ten black students did so. 

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Postsecondary Aspiration and Career Readiness Gaps

According to ACT, 80 percent of Tennessee 2016 high school graduates indicated they aspire to postsecondary education. In 2015, 84 percent aspired to postsecondary education, but only 60 percent of graduates enrolled—a 3 percentage point increase compared to 2014. Closing this gap would add nearly 16,000 students to the state’s college enrollment.

Only 13 percent of Tennessee test-takers met the science/math readiness benchmark score of 26 in those subject areas, trailing the 20 percent of students nationwide scoring at this level. This gap has problematic implications, given that nearly one in five students indicated a career interest in health sciences and technologies.

For the first time, ACT this year reported students’ progress toward career readiness based on their composite scores. These readiness indicators are based on research tying composite scores to National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) levels. Progressively higher NCRC levels indicate students would be more likely to exhibit workplace employability skills key to job success. Although Tennessee test-takers scored comparably to the national average in Bronze and Silver categories, they were 9 percentage points less likely to score in the Gold range, and Gold range Tennessee students scored nearly a full point lower, on average, than their peers nationally. 

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Promising Notes for the Future

On a positive note, nearly 1,300 more students scored 21 or above this year, qualifying them for HOPE scholarship aid. And although too few students now meet college-ready benchmarks, ACT data indicate the potential for continued gains in the coming years. Thousands of students statewide scored within 2 points of meeting subject area benchmarks this year, and sustained commitment to high standards could elevate college and career readiness rates in years ahead. This year, Tennessee becomes the first state to provide students an opportunity to re-take the ACT without charge to them. This opportunity will give students the chance to surpass college-ready benchmarks, potentially qualifying them for financial aid programs that enhance the affordability of postsecondary options.

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Sustained commitment to high standards, focusing attention on disparities in preparation, and providing students and educators with the data and support they need hold great promise for ensuring consistently greater numbers of high school seniors are ready for success beyond graduation day.

Further details and more data from the 2016 ACT.

SCORE Statement on the 2016 ACT results for Tennessee.

Focusing on Racial and Ethnic Diversity among Nashville’s Teachers

Although a substantial body of research has indicated students of color tend to benefit educationally when they have the opportunity to receive instruction from and form relationships with teachers from similar backgrounds, many districts nationwide struggle to recruit, support, and retain high-performing teachers of color to provide that instruction and form those relationships. For this reason, SCORE placed a priority on developing a teaching population more reflective of Tennessee’s student population in our 2015-16 annual report. This work is all the more challenging, and important, as research has found a growing mismatch between the representation of teachers of color and students of color in public schools. Nashville presents a compelling case study of this phenomenon and the need to address it.

A recent report from the Metro Nashville Human Relations Commission presents the stark disjoint between the demographics of Metro Nashville’s teaching and student populations. The report’s data and findings are jarring, but its authors have provided a valuable service to the Nashville community by providing a call to action. Similar investigations in other districts would provide a comparable service and should prompt the kind of reflection necessitated by Metro Nashville’s report.

Nashville’s student population reflects the real and emerging diversity of the city’s overall population. Thirty percent of students in Metro schools come from households in which English is not the primary language, and more than 140 languages are spoken across those homes. Forty percent of students identify as African American; one in five students identify as Hispanic/Latino. The data below, however, reflect a profound imbalance in racial/ethnic background between Metro teachers and the students they serve.

Kyle Data

According to data from the Metro Nashville report, for every one teacher of the same racial/ethnic background, there are approximately six white students, 27 black students, 79 Asian students, and 223 Hispanic students. The city’s fastest growing population is also the most disproportionately underrepresented among its teaching population. According to the report, “there are no Hispanic/Latino teachers in pre-k…and virtually none in special education.”

Just as there is no single cause for these disparities, there is no single solution. Stronger focus is needed to encourage a more representative group of current students to envision careers in education for themselves. In turn, tangible steps must be taken to make teaching an appealing career. Such steps could include increasing teacher compensation and access to affordable housing options in the ever-more-expensive Nashville market.

Compensation increases, however, must also account for the need for increased equity. According to the Metro Nashville report, “Although whites make up over 63 [percent] of MNPS employees, they are underrepresented in the four lowest income brackets, while African American employees…are overrepresented in those same four brackets.” In the highest three income-earning brackets—for employees making at least $80,000 a year—“whites and African Americans are more equitably represented, though Hispanics and Asians are largely absent from these high-earning groups.”

Intentional partnerships between the district and local organizations focused on serving youth from Hispanic and Latin American backgrounds, including YMCA Latino Achievers, can help prepare and encourage more young people for teaching careers.

Regardless of their racial/ethnic identity, however, all teachers can best serve students when they are equipped with the training and tools needed to provide culturally responsive instruction and mentoring. As noted in the Metro Nashville report, teacher training programs and professional development opportunities have critical roles to play in preparing culturally competent teachers who facilitate inclusive, engaging classrooms. This kind of training, preparation, and embedded professional development must be part of the kind of intentional effort required by the district and by schools to promote greater inclusion of historically marginalized populations.

Each week seems to bring a new national headline hailing Nashville as one of America’s “It” cities. But an It city must have an It school system, and without a population of high-performing teachers who are more reflective of the community they serve, research tells us Metro Nashville schools will face continued challenges to meet this demand. Diversity represents one of the city’s primary strengths, and ongoing, intentional efforts matched with needed investments can leverage that strength to enhance achievement for all students.

Inspiring Work-Based Learning Opportunities

I recently traveled with a delegation from Tennessee to visit a wiring packaging facility in Carrollton, Georgia—an unlikely place, perhaps, for the Director of Policy and Research at a nonprofit education organization. I joined colleagues, however, from state government, school and district leaders, teachers, and business representatives to learn about 12 for Life, a program facilitated by Southwire that has changed the life trajectories of hundreds of youth in the Carrollton area and at a second facility in Florence, Alabama. Those trajectories are changed by the work-based learning model in which Southwire has invested for ten years.

Representatives of Tennessee state government agencies, schools,  districts, and businesses visited the 12 for Life Southwire facility in  Carrollton, GA on February 26, 2016
Representatives of Tennessee state government agencies, schools,
districts, and businesses visited the 12 for Life Southwire facility in
Carrollton, Georgia, on February 26, 2016

My colleague Erika Leicht discussed 12 for Life in a blog post last fall, but seeing and talking with the student participants brought the impact of the program to life. High school juniors and seniors comprise nearly all of the staff at the 12 for Life Southwire facility. They spend half their day in on-site classes and half in paid positions. According to 12 for Life, “Students are paid above minimum wage and can increase their income by demonstrating skills such as timeliness, reliability, and accuracy.” 12 for Life enrolls students who would most often be identified as “at risk” of dropping out of high school as a result of coming from low-income backgrounds, struggling with academic achievement, and lacking strong personal support or role models.

Rather than leave school without a high school diploma, more than 90 percent of 12 for Life participants complete high school while also gaining job skills. Outcomes for graduates include:

• 40 percent pursuing postsecondary education, with most attending a local community college
• 20 percent entering the military
• 20 percent working in other regional businesses
• Approximately 50-75 graduates per year accepting full-time Southwire positions

These outcomes change the trajectory of opportunity for graduates who would otherwise face a series of jobs earning less than $9,000 per year and lacking real-world skills and credentials that serve as foundations for personal and professional success.

The 12 for Life facility earned a $3 million profit for Southwire last year. However, the plant manager told our group, “We’re in the people development business. Our most important product is our students.” Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has cited Southwire as a promising model to replicate through other public-private partnerships.

Scaling up programs like 12 for Life requires both vision and commitment from community, education, and business partners. Such partnerships require attention, energy, and resources, but Tennessee has much to learn from 12 for Life, as well as other promising work-based learning and youth apprenticeship opportunities.

This week and next, The SCORE Sheet will feature a series of other promising models to equip students with real-world skills while empowering them for educational and career success beyond high school. In featuring these stories, we hope to highlight bold visions and deep commitments to ensure college and career readiness for all high school graduates.


This is the first in a series of SCORE Sheet blogs about school-business partnerships that focus on helping students develop skills for postsecondary education and the workforce.

A Deeper Look: What The 2015 NAEP Results Tell Us about Tennessee Student Performance

Today the U.S. Department of Education released results of the 2015 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Nationally, results demonstrate the reality that more concerted efforts are needed to advance student mastery of math, as well as reading. Many states’ results declined, while Tennessee held steady at its 2013 proficiency levels. Recognizing the substantial work needed nationwide to improve student math and reading proficiency, what do the NAEP data tell us about the state of education in Tennessee? Before answering this question, it is essential to understand a few points about the NAEP and how scores are reported.

What is the NAEP?

For decades, the National Center for Education Statistics has partnered with states to offer a rigorous assessment of how well students have mastered a variety of subject areas. Tests are administered periodically across grade levels and subject areas, but most regularly—every two years—in reading and math for grades 4 and 8. This year, 12,000 Tennessee fourth- and eighth-grade students took a no more than 90-minute NAEP test.

What do NAEP scores mean?

Subject area tests are scored on a scale of 0 to 500. Scores indicate whether students have mastered material at Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, or Advanced levels. Score cutoffs for these designations depend on the grade level and subject area of the test. Representative samples of students across the country enable states to compare how well their students are learning overall and compare their progress to that of their peers in other states. Achievement levels are defined as:

• Basic – partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for success in grade-level work.
• Proficient – demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.
• Advanced – superior performance.

How are Tennessee students performing on NAEP?

After making the largest NAEP score gains in history in 2013, Tennessee test-takers this year overall performed at comparable levels, even as their peers in many other states performed at lower proficiency levels. For the first time, Tennessee students are ranked in the top half of states in fourth-grade math, rising to 25th in the nation after ranking 46th just four years ago. These gains are worth celebrating. This year’s results also point the way toward areas of continued need for our state’s students.

Average overall scores in eighth-grade reading and math this year remained at their 2013 levels. The average score of 220 increased 1 point over 2013 in fourth-grade math, while it declined one point to 240 in fourth-grade reading.

Among our neighboring states in the South, only Mississippi students scored higher in fourth-grade math this year than in 2013. Scores declined in Georgia and Arkansas and remained at their 2013 levels in other bordering states. In eighth-grade math, scores declined in 22 states nationally, including Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina. No state improved on eighth-grade math. Students improved their performance in fourth-grade reading in 13 states, including Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi. Only West Virginia improved nationally in eighth-grade reading over the last two test administrations. Eight states declined on that test, including North Carolina.

Although overall scores and achievement levels for the state are important indicators of educational progress, a closer look at the data tell a more complete story of where gains have been made and where ongoing areas of need persist. Underserved students of color, English language learners, and students from urban school systems have historically underperformed on national assessments. Data from NAEP provide one perspective on efforts to improve education for these student populations.

Proficiency rates

In 2007, only 29 percent of Tennessee fourth-graders scored in the proficient or advanced NAEP categories on math. This year, 41 percent did so. Tennessee’s eighth-grade rates of proficiency or above have narrowed the gap with national averages in math from 10 percentage points in 2011 to 3 percentage points this year. In reading since 2011, the gap has narrowed from 6 percentage points to 1 percentage point in fourth-grade. The eighth-grade reading gap between Tennessee and the national average proficiency rate grew between 2009 and 2011, but since then students in Tennessee have surpassed the national average.

NAEP Figure1

To continue making progress toward national-level proficiency rates and to achieve those rates even above national averages, gains must be made across all student populations equitably. This work remains a compelling challenge for policymakers and educators statewide.

Racial performance gaps

Like their white peers, early grades African-American students in Tennessee have not made reading gains in recent years. After an 11 point gain between 2011 and 2013, black students declined 4 points this year in eighth-grade reading. In math, however, African American students from Tennessee have made substantial gains since 2007, as indicated in the graph below.

NAEP Figure2

After lagging behind the national average math score of black fourth-graders through 2009, students in Tennessee have made gains in each of the last three NAEP administrations, surpassing the national average this year. As in eighth-grade reading and math, however, black student NAEP performance trails both the state and national white students’ scores by 20 points or more, demonstrating the urgent and ongoing need to address disparate educational outcomes for African-Americans.

As the Hispanic student population continues to grow in Tennessee and across the country, growing amounts of data will become available to track student progress from this subgroup as well.

Urban district growth

Across the country, large urban districts have made significant growth on NAEP over the last 12 years. This year again, urban schools gains have outpaced national performance. Students in urban Tennessee districts have reflected an improving trend in recent years. Since 2011, math scores for urban district students in fourth grade have increased 11 points. After a 14-point gain between 2011 and 2013, suburban fourth-grade math scores declined 4 points this year. Eighth-graders in urban Tennessee districts also continued gains in math and reading, as indicated by the graphs below. (For ease of reading, only scores for city and suburban locations are detailed.)

NAEP Figure3

NAEP Figure4

These gains should hearten educators in our state’s urban districts who are working to promote the equitable success of their students.

English language learners

As the English learner student population has grown in number over recent years, so too has its performance scores on NAEP assessments. After declining and remaining flat from 2011 to 2013 in reading and math, respectively, fourth-grade English learner students posted a 26-point gain in reading and a 17-point gain in math.

NAEP Figure5

NAEP Figure6

Because of the likely low sample size of English learners participating in NAEP, big point gains should be viewed cautiously. However, efforts to improve educational outcomes for this growing number of students have enabled them to now outpace the national ELL average performance and significantly narrow gaps with their peers for whom English is their first language.

Moving forward

In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce assigned an “F” for truth in advertising to Tennessee because of the discrepancy between high passage rates on state accountability exams and scores on NAEP. Low standards set by the state were reflected by low performance on rigorous national assessments. As Tennessee has enhanced the rigor of academic standards and moved toward aligning those standards with rigorous state assessments, students statewide have responded by succeeding at higher levels. Students in successive NAEP administrations have demonstrated higher levels of proficiency in math and reading, which bodes well for their success in high school and beyond. To realize a better prepared population of high school graduates, however, academic gains must be made for all of Tennessee’s students, particularly those in areas and subpopulations that have historically been underserved by the K-12 system.

A final word on interpretation: The Nation’s Report card is the best measure we have for comparing the performance of students in one state to those in other states and to national averages. Results also tell us, however, much about where to focus our energies and attention within our state’s borders. Today’s results require much further analysis, and as Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute has demonstrated, NAEP data adjusted for demographic realities across states can lead to a variety of alternate interpretations.

For now, Tennessee must focus on continuing the work of improving instruction, equipped with student data and the tools to use them, and on the essential work of promoting greater educational equity across our public school system. Great teaching and strong support of student progress must remain among the state’s highest priorities, coupled with the assurance that the work we do here will continue to better prepare our students for the future.

Assessment in Tennessee: Teaching, Testing, and Time

“You have to lay out a calendar. We just had a principals’ meeting in our district, and we looked at our calendar. We highlighted with colors the different tests and whether it’s no teaching that day. I thought, what if you give teachers this ladedacalendar and say, ‘Go find your days to teach.’ Those are important.” With those words in a recent SCORE-conducted focus group, a Tennessee middle school teacher expressed the frustration of many educators statewide that the state’s current approach to student testing too often detracts from instructional time. Further, the state’s assessments too often strike educators as unaligned with curriculum standards and tie up educational technology, detracting from students’ ability to gain experience with the devices they will use to take the tests.

These concerns and others have prompted a statewide review of student assessment. Earlier this year, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen established the Tennessee Task Force on Student Testing and Assessment to:

• Identify and study best practices in student assessment;
• Ensure local school districts and the state are appropriately using assessments to improve student achievement; and
• Better inform stakeholders about the state assessment program

This week, the Tennessee Department of Education released the task force’s report, and important findings include:

• Many teachers feel they spend too much time preparing students for statewide exams, and those exams do not reflect the state standards for what students should learn in a given year.
• A growing number of teachers report better understanding how to use student assessment results to tailor their teaching to meet students’ learning needs.

Based on the input of task force members and feedback from educators statewide, the task force has presented key principles for assessment going forward in Tennessee, along with recommendations for the state and local education leaders. These principles, coupled with the report’s recommendations and directions for further analysis, represent a milestone moment for how assessments are understood and administered. Principles and recommendations reflect the task force’s overarching call promoting greater alignment across educational standards and the assessments students take. This alignment will provide a foundation for an approach to assessment that reduces time away from instruction and equips teachers with data they can use to address the educational needs of their students. The full report is now available online.

In addition to the task force’s important work, SCORE conducted a statewide survey of district leaders, principals, and teachers—as well as a series of interviews and focus groups—to ensure Tennessee educator voices are heard in the process of improving how student assessment is done and acted upon. More than 13,000 teachers, 286 principals, and 69 superintendents responded to our surveys. In addition, more than 300 educators took part in a total of 40 focus groups statewide. Based on input received, we identified a set of findings, which include those detailed below.

• Teachers, principals, and district leaders pointed to the unique value of assessment in driving key decisions at the classroom, school, and district levels. For example, educators discussed using data from assessments to determine appropriate instruction, teacher support practices, and student interventions. One district leader related how teachers share input in selecting local assessments that can best guide student instruction: “We have weekly team meetings where we look at new assessments that are coming out, we look at samples, and we sit down around the table and just kind of hash it out. We discuss what we feel is the best product to meet our needs. So our teachers are very, very involved in our decision-making process.”

KSBlog1• District leaders and principals identified assessment logistics, such as scheduling and implementing technology-based assessments, as top challenges faced in their roles.

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• Teachers identified lost instructional time as a result of both district- and state-level assessments as a top challenge faced in their roles.

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Although educators statewide have been frustrated by the lack of alignment between assessments and learning standards, as well as the amount of time taken away from instruction to prepare students for those assessments, they do believe in the power of assessment results to inform teachers, parents, and students about how students are learning and in what areas they need more support. Teachers are gaining skills in putting data from assessment results to use as they adjust their instruction to better support students in those areas.

As the state prepares to implement new TNReady assessments to replace the long-standing Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, there is cause for positive thinking about the future of assessment. TNReady assessments are intentionally designed to reflect Tennessee State Standards for learning. Rather than forcing teachers and schools to shut down instruction to prepare students for testing, the content students learn in class should prepare them to demonstrate content mastery on assessments. And where students continue to struggle, teachers can respond by collaborating with their colleagues and employing new instructional approaches. One principal expressed the optimism accompanying the arrival of TNReady: “I love to see that finally the state test will be more aligned to the increased standards that we have. It’s been really challenging straddling the fence between TCAP and our standards. So I’m really looking forward to TNReady and so are my teachers. It’s safe to say that for most of the teachers in our district, they’re looking forward to having a test that aligns to how they are teaching.”

Ultimately, standards and assessments that set high standards can provide a foundation to better prepare students for success well beyond their test-taking days.

SCORE’s report, Teaching, Testing, and Time: Educator Voices on Improving Assessment in Tennessee is now available online.

ACT Update: Indicators of College Readiness in Tennessee

As one of 13 states in which 100 percent of graduating high school seniors have taken the ACT college entrance examination, ACT scores represent an important indicator of college readiness in Tennessee. This year, more than 68,000 graduates statewide took the exam, and the published results provide educators data needed to understand how well our schools are preparing young people for success in postsecondary opportunities. Results provide both good news and compelling evidence for the need to do more.

The ACT includes four sections: English, mathematics, reading, and science, with different score cutoffs set for each section to determine whether students are prepared for college-level success (grade C or higher) in each subject. Statewide, 20 percent of test-takers scored at college ready levels across all four areas, trailing the national average of 28 percent. Among public high school test-takers, 17 percent of graduates scored at college ready levels across all subject areas. Compared to their peers in neighboring states in which all graduating seniors took the ACT, a higher percentage of Tennessee students scored at college-ready levels in all four subject areas than those in Mississippi (13 percent), Alabama (16 percent) and North Carolina (18 percent). In Kentucky, 21 percent of graduates met all four benchmarks.

Rigorous Course-Taking

Students who complete rigorous courses of study in high school have substantially higher odds of scoring at college-ready ACT levels than their peers who do not. Across all subject areas, students completing the most rigorous available courses of study consistently scored at college-ready benchmarks at higher rates than their peers completing other course sequences.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Although ACT data indicate the power of rigorous coursework to prepare students for college level work, to date national disparities in readiness levels across racial and ethnic populations have been reflected in the scores of Tennessee students.

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Although students identifying across all racial and ethnic populations in Tennessee score at levels below national averages, the average score among black students within Tennessee of 16.5 trails those of their Hispanic peers by nearly 2 points and of their white peers by 4 full points.

In addition, compared to 2011 rates, 7 percent more Asian and 6 percent more white students in 2015 scored above college-ready benchmark levels in three or all four subject areas. Comparable increases among Hispanic and African-American students have trailed at 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively, over this time period.

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STEM Preparation

Racial and ethnic disparities reflected in ACT composite scores are even more dramatic when data are disaggregated by subject area. Although more than half of self-identified students of Asian descent and more than a third of students identifying as white scored above college-ready benchmarks in math and science, just one in five Hispanic students and fewer than one in ten black students met those benchmarks.

Promising Notes for the Future

ACT 2015 data reveal Tennessee is making progress in preparing students for success in college, but educators and policymakers must remain committed to high standards and high levels of support for all students. Although too few students now meet college-ready benchmarks, ACT data indicate the potential for strong gains in the coming years. Thousands of students statewide scored within 2 points of meeting subject area benchmarks this year, and sustained commitment to high standards could elevate college and career readiness rates in years ahead.

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According to ACT, 84 percent of Tennessee 2015 high school graduates indicated they aspire to postsecondary education; in 2014, 57 percent of graduates enrolled. Closing this gap would add nearly 19,000 students to the state’s college enrollment. As Tennessee continues broad efforts to increase college completion, ACT notes that 22 percent of the state’s test-takers would be the first in their family to earn a postsecondary credential, outpacing the 18 percent rate of first-generation test-takers nationwide.

In addition to well documented social and public health benefits of a more educated citizenry, increasing postsecondary educational attainment presents an essential workforce imperative for Tennessee. By 2020, about two-thirds of jobs in Tennessee will require education beyond high school. Further, job creators from small businesses to multinational corporations interested in expanding in Tennessee increasingly need employees with the technical and critical thinking skills provided by postsecondary education and required to compete in a global economy.

Sustained commitment to high standards, focusing attention on addressing disparities in preparation, and providing students and educators with the data and support they need hold great promise for ensuring progress toward ensuring all high school seniors are ready for success beyond graduation day.

Further details and more data from the 2015 ACT.

Bridging our educational gaps

Back in August, I loaded up a truck in Nashville and headed north to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here at the University of Michigan, I have just completed my first semester as a doctoral student examining the connections between public policy and higher education. Although the hot days of summer in Nashville seem like a distant memory now, I have been reflecting on what I am taking away from the past few months of study and observation. Continue reading

Closing the exposure gap

Seven students from low-income families in Birmingham, Alabama—a school district fraught with dysfunction—took on a challenging opportunity this Summer: They spent the month of July studying in Beijing, China. Their story is one of a teacher going to extraordinary efforts to open an opportunity hosted by the Jiayu School, Youth Leaders of America and China (YLAC). It is also a story of students gaining exposure to an entirely different language and culture; these students are closing what their teacher, Wyatt Smith, calls “the exposure gap.” Continue reading