Tennessee has an impressive track record of educational improvement, grounded in using data to improve student outcomes; there are signs that some of the most important tools that enabled that progress are at significant risk. It’s time to recommit to policies that work and act more boldly in using data to reorient our education system so that it prepares every student for career and life success.

It’s summertime, so I have baseball on my mind.

One of the things that is foundational to baseball is data. Statistics, measurement and accountability in the game are clear — you know exactly how good a player is at getting on base, retiring batters, or hitting with power. And all these data are available both in real time and over the course of a career; flip over a baseball card (or spend time on any of the baseball analytics websites) and you know exactly where things stand. It’s easy to compare, contrast, see improvement, and identify players’ or teams’ struggles.

The same approach to using data as a tool can be true in education, and Tennessee has a history of being clear about what we value as a state and then measuring it. When SCORE was founded in 2009, one of our four priority areas for improving educational outcomes was using data to enhance student learning. Specifically, we said that Tennessee should “create a data-driven environment that equips policymakers, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents with the information and tools they need to advance student learning and success.”

Tennessee Has Led the Way

Over the last 20 years, Tennessee has quietly led the way on using data to inform teaching, learning, and policymaking. Our state measures and publicly reports out on student outcomes in K-12 education every year in most grades and subjects; we led the nation in funding higher education in a way that is informed by actual student outcomes; K-12 teachers receive annual feedback on their performance, grounded in data on whether their students are learning; we have a powerful measure for tracking learning gains (called TVAAS) that helps us understand whether teachers and schools are helping students meet — or exceed — expectations; and Tennessee is sitting on a robust, secure data system that allows us to understand how students are progressing from kindergarten through career and to see clearly which policies and practices are working.

These efforts have led to impressive improvements for students, and we’ve come a long way from having some of the worst educational outcomes in the country. We’ve been the fastest-improving state in the nation in K-12 education; we’ve recovered faster than most states from the impacts of the pandemic on student learning; and we’re building stronger pathways to great jobs for more Tennessee students. Data and accountability give Tennessee taxpayers confidence that the policies and investments being made in education are resulting in actual improvements in academic outcomes. But more importantly, these efforts ground education improvement in what’s good for students.

What you might not know is that some of the priorities that have enabled our progress and position us for future success are at serious risk.

Continued Improvement and Future Progress Are at Risk

During the most recent legislative session, one policy proposal that received significant attention would have removed almost all required assessments for students in public high schools, eliminating the ability to know whether students are on track. Another proposal sought to eliminate the annual teacher evaluation and feedback process for some teachers, meaning many educators would have only received data-informed formal feedback on their performance once every three years. And while Tennessee’s current Education Savings Account program requires assessments and analysis to ensure schools are delivering for students and families, legislative proposals for an expanded program varied on whether to formally measure the academic performance of participating students.

Surprisingly, some of the efforts to roll back public school assessment and teacher evaluation were described as “reforms to the public school system.” Trying to improve education by eliminating key data points and accountability is like ignoring the box score and instead judging a team’s performance on the quality of the coach’s post-game interview.

For anyone who believes that what you measure matters and that accountability for results in education is both an important lever in ensuring student success and a reasonable expectation from taxpayers, these proposals — and some of the rhetoric surrounding them — should be the equivalent of getting a pitch “high and tight.”

Let’s Double Down on What Works — And Use Data to Act More Boldly

So where do we go next? What do we do? It starts with a recommitment to measuring outcomes in education and across different student groups — and to reporting those results transparently and publicly so that educators, policymakers, employers, families, and taxpayers know whether education is working for students. It also means acting more boldly in using data in both K-12 and higher education to reorient our education system so that it prepares every student for career and life success.

First, as a state we should recommit to both measuring and acting on student outcome data in K-12 education and clearly call out efforts that would undermine our progress. We need to maintain and improve, not roll back and unwind, annual assessment in K-12 public education, so that we have real, comparable data on how students are doing and what policies to tweak to improve results. Assessments may not include all of the information that families and teachers need to support their students every day, but that shouldn’t be the reason to roll back testing that gives critical information to inform statewide and local solutions. We also need to resist the urge to water down Tennessee’s nationally leading teacher evaluation and feedback process — if anything, the feedback and professional development teachers receive needs to be more targeted, robust, and actionable. And any publicly funded education opportunity — including school choice programs — should include a measuring and reporting on student learning so that Tennesseans and Tennessee families can be sure the promise of that opportunity is being realized and resulting in satisfactory student outcomes.

Second, at a moment when many students are skeptical about the value of a postsecondary education, we need to use data to better connect the postsecondary experiences students can access to clear career outcomes. Tennessee needs to more concretely identify the outcomes we want to be true for students after postsecondary education and career training and better define the impact of a credential or degree toward those outcomes, ensuring that students, families, and policymakers know how a specific postsecondary experience will connect to earnings and job outlook. We should also update the way we fund postsecondary education to ensure the investments we are making are reinforcing the outcomes we’re prioritizing — like whether a student gets a good job. And we need to incentivize and expand new student pathways and school models that can show — using clear data on career success — that they are bridging the gap between education and work.

And finally, we need to make data insights more accessible, actionable, and usable to all Tennesseans, particularly data on how education connects to work. We’ve made progress in making some of Tennessee’s powerful statewide data system more accessible, like this new dashboard released earlier this year. But we haven’t even scratched the surface on how this data could be used to inform policy, funding, and strategy decisions from the Capitol to the classroom. Any Tennessean should be able to quickly know how a K-12 public school is doing in preparing students for the next grade. Any Tennessean should be able to see how high school early postsecondary and work experiences are preparing students for postsecondary access and success. Any Tennessean should be able to learn whether a degree or credential offered at a TCAT, community college, or university is preparing students for a good career with a family-sustaining wage. Any Tennessee student should be able to know what the job outlook is for any of our state’s degrees and credentials. And any Tennessee leader should have access to each of these data points to help build the best and most prepared workforce in the country.

Data Drives Results

Baseball teams can’t expect success without paying attention to the stats. Data and the responsiveness to data is an important part of how you build championship teams. The same is true in education.

Central to the commitment to data and outcomes is a commitment to opportunity for Tennessee students. Every student and family should have an expectation that education in our state — no matter the setting — is providing them with the opportunity for a great K-12 education, for a postsecondary experience that prepares them for a good job, and for a meaningful and rewarding career.

That’s something worth measuring.

David Mansouri is SCORE’s president and CEO.