The new Nation’s Report Card has been delivered. While the results provide valuable insights about the past, how Tennessee responds in the future is even more important.

The results released Tuesday come from a sample of Tennessee students in grades 4 and 8 who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in early 2017, their first experience with an online test. Tennessee’s trend lines since 2011 are indisputably up:

Proficiency rates: Fourth-graders have risen from 30 percent to 36 percent in math and from 26 percent to 33 percent in reading. Eighth-graders have improved from 24 percent to 29 percent in math and from 27 percent to 31 percent in reading.

National rankings: Fourth-graders moved from 46th to 34th in math and 41st to 34th in reading. Eighth-graders climbed from 45th to 35th in math and 41st to 38th in reading.

Tennessee has maintained most of the previous academic gains on the Nation’s Report Card  with a new group of students and remains among the states that have made the most progress over the past 10 years. However, performance is not yet at the high levels Tennesseans want for our students.

As Tennessee enters a crucial time of leadership transition across state government, the 2017 NAEP performance highlights the significance of recommendations SCORE made last year in Excellence For All: How Tennessee Can Lift Our Students To Best In The Nation

Tennessee should focus on making every student a strong reader and writer and giving students with the greatest needs more support to learn at their highest levels. Tennessee also must work toward strong leadership in every school, especially low-performing schools, and effective teaching in every classroom, especially in the core subjects of English and math.

Tennessee’s big NAEP growth spurt in 2013 followed ground-breaking changes in Tennessee education policy – higher standards, annual teacher evaluations based on multiple measures, an accountability system with teeth, widespread standards-based professional development and support for teachers, and focused work on school turnaround and innovation. Those things worked for students and should be preserved.

At the same time, the improvements have not been implemented evenly across the state. SCORE research and data analysts will be digging deeper into the NAEP data beginning today, but we already know from statewide assessment results that Tennessee has troubling achievement gaps based on race and ethnicity, learning disabilities, where students live, and whether their families are needy or financially secure. 

Wide achievement gaps exist even within good districts and good schools. Tennessee’s 67 lowest-performing schools serve just over 30,000 students, and 97 percent of them are students of color and 76 percent are economically disadvantaged.

To be the best in the nation in education, Tennessee needs to be more innovative and more urgent in helping students with the greatest needs and schools with the biggest challenges.

Immediately after receiving the 2015 NAEP results, the Tennessee Department of Education and many partners began moving to strengthen literacy instruction. Significant progress is not yet apparent in NAEP reading scores, so Tennessee needs to consider how to go bigger and move faster on improving reading.

To be the best in the nation in education, Tennessee must leverage the power of strong instructional materials and equip teachers and school and district leaders with deep understanding of current literacy instruction so they can help all students become strong readers and writers.

Tennessee was early to recognize that great educators are the key to advancing student achievement. Initial efforts focused largely on effective teaching – and we have seen real improvement – while school leadership efforts are still in the early stages. 

Other states, such as Illinois, are pace-setters in leadership development, and we should study their success for guidance. (SCORE is working on a set of school leadership recommendations to be released this year.)

To become the best in the nation in education, Tennessee should push forward with efforts to improve and diversify teacher and principal pipelines and preparation. In particular, Tennessee needs to emphasize developing highly effective teachers and leaders for low-performing schools.

Finally, strong statewide assessment can support educators in helping our students gain ground faster. When Tennessee students took the NAEP reading and math assessment in early 2017, elementary and middle school teachers had not yet had the benefit of using data from an annual state assessment completely aligned with the standards. 

Despite hand-wringing in some quarters about the impact of TNReady challenges on teacher evaluations, the teachers I know worry more about the impact the lack of assessment data has had on their instruction and their students. Statewide assessment needs to work better for Tennessee teachers and students. 

While we all hoped to see faster progress with the new NAEP results, there is good reason to remain optimistic about the future. Tennessee has a track record of using test data to make wise decisions for students, and we’ve seen unprecedented growth since 2011.

At SCORE, we will be focusing on how we can build consensus in Tennessee to keep what is working for students, be bold enough to innovate, and implement those innovations consistently and well.