Tennessee’s foundational policies in academic standards, annual assessment, and educator evaluation provide the fundamental building blocks of a high-quality education system. As Tennessee considers future opportunities to accelerate student learning, our collective commitment to these essential policies enable the practices and innovations that will propel our students to the success we all know they can achieve.

One of the priorities in the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)’s 2018-19 State Of Education In Tennessee report focuses on Tennessee’s foundations for student success and the need to maintain the student-focused policies and practices that have driven unprecedented progress in student achievement, with greater emphasis on ensuring equity for all Tennesseans.

What were innovations a decade ago have become the bedrock for Tennessee’s current and future success. As Tennessee rebuilds confidence in the annual assessment system with students, educators, parents, and other education stakeholders, it is important to recognize how these policies have contributed to student success and the opportunities they present for Tennessee to build a world-class education system that gets better at getting better.

There is evidence that Tennessee students have learned more and educators have grown more during the time period that these policies were implemented when compared to other states:

  • A Stanford University scholar’s in-depth analysis of student achievement trends across the country showed that from 2009-2015, Tennessee’s student achievement gains stood out both when comparing to other states and for the relative consistency of gains across Tennessee’s districts.
  • Building on previous research by Brown University scholars, research from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance found that Tennessee teachers grew over the course of their careers – counter to previous research suggesting that improvement plateaus after three years of experience. In addition, Tennessee’s teachers grew more in recent years.
  • On the 2018 Tennessee Educator Survey, 69 percent of teachers said they believed Tennessee’s multiple measure teacher evaluation process led to improvements in their student learning. This is compared to 28 percent in 2012.

This unprecedented progress in both student and teacher growth is unique to Tennessee and suggests that the state has built the foundations for an education system that prioritizes and facilitates continuous improvement. It is a signal of Tennessee’s belief in the promise of what students and educators can achieve.

At the heart of these policies is how they help all students – regardless of where a student lives or their life circumstances – learn the skills and knowledge they need to be ready for college, career, and life. Tennessee’s academic standards provide a framework for rich learning experiences aligned to a thoughtful progression of concepts, skills, and content across grades. Combined with higher quality standards in other subjects, the standards provide a common set of expectations across the state while enabling local districts and educators to design the content-rich learning experiences students need.

With a clear set of learning goals, measuring student progress through an aligned, high-quality annual assessment allows students, parents, and educators to reflect on what was – and more importantly, was not – learned. The state’s current assessment, TNReady, has helped address Tennessee’s “honesty gap” and gives a more accurate snapshot of student learning.

In the past, the misalignment between the state’s test and national assessments of student learning helped hide inequities in learning outcomes for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. With implementation challenges in recent years, Tennessee deserves nothing less than a flawless TNReady administration in 2019 and beyond. Over time, each successful administration will help Tennesseans better understand and evaluate how well our public education system serves every student.

Research has consistently found that teachers and school leaders are the first and second most important in-school factors for student learning. Tennessee’s multiple measure evaluation system honors the essential role educators play in our education system by providing regular feedback on their practice from other educators as well as data on student learning.

When paired with high-quality professional learning, Tennessee’s educators get the support they need to grow as professionals. Local and state efforts to ensure equitable access to effective teaching, improve teacher preparation, and better develop teachers depend on a reliable understanding of teacher effectiveness. While more work remains to ensure observation feedback better matches current teacher needs, Tennessee educators overwhelmingly accept the premise that these evaluations help improve their craft. In future years, we will know even more about the work to improve teacher effectiveness because of Tennessee Education Research Alliance’s research.

The statewide alignment enables state policymakers to provide the right types of support to districts and educators without standing in the way of local innovations that improve student learning. From the 2020 English language arts instructional materials adoption to conversations about how to redesign the high school experience, districts and educators are empowered to design the opportunities that make the most sense for their communities while having a strong set of goals and processes to ensure that both students and teachers grow.

By adopting rigorous college and career ready standards for student learning, a high-quality assessment aligned to those standards, and a multiple-measure accountability system to provide feedback to educators, Tennessee created a policy environment that enables and encourages educators to deliver high-quality learning experiences year after year.  

Peter Tang is a senior policy and research analyst at SCORE.