Common Core's Not Here Yet, So How Come Our Scores Are Improving?

Tennessee students made great gains on test scores this past year, indicating that somebody is doing something right in education reform in the state. But the gains cannot be attributed to the Common Core curriculum, which is still in the process of being implemented.

Anyone who suggests that Common Core is responsible is either misinformed or lying.

To what, then, can we attribute the improvement?

I was an early advocate of value-added testing. I went over to the University of Tennessee campus and spent time with Bill Sanders, the architect of the state testing program. This was before he took the program to Nashville and convinced Gov. Ned McWherter to implement it.

Up until that time, you might look at ACT scores at a suburban school and then at a rural school and assume that the suburban school had better teachers. But Sanders argued that you couldn't judge teachers on factors over which they had no control. If you teach in a school with upper-income kids with educated parents and access to technology, your students may outscore students in an inner-city school or a rural school where students don't have those advantages.

With value-added testing, you discover how much a student learned from one year to the next. Teachers were measured on their ability to improve student learning. You might have a teacher in an upper-income school whose students score fairly well on an ACT test, but you might discover that the students could have done even better if the teacher were better. You might also discover a teacher in a low-income school who has students making great gains because of his dedication and ability.

The basic flaw in the testing program Tennessee implemented over 20 years ago is that the scores could not be used to evaluate teachers. Administrators theoretically could identify teachers whose scores were consistently low and then encourage them to improve.

It was finally under Gov. Phil Bredesen that things changed. The scores became up to one-third of a teacher's evaluation. Since then the scores in Tennessee have climbed steadily.

But the basis of the program, and what makes it work, is that it has to be fair. Evaluations have to be done with scores of students that a teacher actually teaches.

What I hear from teachers is that they are being evaluated on criteria over which they have no control—the scores for the entire school, for instance. Or they teach courses that are not tested. Or they are evaluated by people who come to their class to rate them but who do not teach their subject.

No one can tell you exactly what makes a good teacher. If someone could, education would be simple. To the casual observer, you might have a classroom that appears to be total chaos, but learning is taking place. You might observe a classroom where students are so quiet you can hear a pin drop, but they might be bored out of their skulls.

Value-added testing gives you objective numbers about whether students are learning. Make sure you look at scores over at least a three-year period to be fair. But you get a good indication of whether they are doing their job effectively.

I'm told that, under the new regime, a value-added component will remain. I certainly hope so. I am also told that the Legislature is going to take a hard look at the evaluation process and make sure that evaluations are fair and that they are based on things that teachers can control. Who can be against that?

There are people on both sides of the Common Core argument whom I respect. I haven't made up my mind. But I do know that what we are doing now is working. We should keep that in mind going forward.

In the meantime, we should tell Michelle Rhee's group, which gave us a "C" rating for our schools, to take her rating and stick it where the sun don't shine.