Fears of TCAP-itation

Why Knox County schools made a big push to convince parents that lower test scores are a good thing

For weeks, starting in late summer and carrying through right to the end of September, it was almost impossible to escape a parade of grim warnings from Knox County education officials: TCAP scores were coming, and they were going to be bad.

It's not often that school systems trumpet falling indicators. Even the worst numbers are often artfully arranged in whatever positive light may be cast on them. But this year was different, because the statewide standardized test results reflected new, more stringent standards. Students who had previously been classified as "advanced" in math or reading might suddenly be merely "proficient." And students who had been proficient—the minimum "passing" grade, as far as the state is concerned—might not be anymore.

The new "cut scores" (as in, making the cut) were approved over the summer by the state Department of Education. It's part of a much broader push under Gov. Phil Bredesen to raise both Tennessee's academic requirements and the percentage of the state's students that can meet them. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, all students are supposed to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. And Tennessee's successful application for the Obama administration's Race to the Top program promised to "infuse our schools with world-class standards."

But that kind of infusion can be painful at first. Knox County Superintendent Jim McIntyre acknowledges that it made everybody feel good to report, as the school system has in recent years, that 90 percent of all students were proficient or advanced in the major academic areas. But, he says, it created a false sense of accomplishment.

"I think raising our academic standards does two things," McIntyre says. "One, it gives us an accurate picture of where we are. And two, it raises our expectations for our kids."

Although Knox County parents received their children's results on Sept. 21, districtwide data hasn't been publicly released. That will come with the statewide report card, tentatively scheduled for mid-November, which will also include value-added statistics: measurements of how much individual teachers, schools, and school systems helped improve their students' performance from the prior year. But like many of the individual results, the countywide data is expected to show some declines.

School board Chairwoman Indya Kincannon says, "Dr. McIntyre has told the board that there have been significant drops at individual schools and district-wide." But like McIntyre, she says it is better to identify struggling schools and students, in order to provide the attention and resources they need.

Tennessee is not alone in ratcheting up its standards. States across the country have been imposing tougher measures as it became clear there were gaps between what they considered "proficient" and what the federal government is calling for. Besides adjusting the bar on standardized tests, 32 states (including Tennessee) have signed on to a Common Core curriculum developed under the auspices of the National Governors Association. Once fully adopted, that will theoretically lead another adjustment in 2014 or 2015, with universal standardized tests in all of the Core Curriculum states.

Chester Finn, a longtime leader in the education standards movement and president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C., says the reforms in Tennessee are long overdue. "Tennessee has been the poster-child of misleading its people over the past 10 years as to who is or who is not proficient," he says.

He says that states that have already adopted stricter curriculums and standards, like Massachusetts, have shown real gains in student achievement.

But, as always in education, there are skeptics. At the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit group that has long raised concerns about the effects of test-focused education, Public Eduction Director Bob Schaeffer says merely raising standards doesn't address any of the real problems in the classroom.

"It's true that some schools have not done a good job," Schaeffer says. "But an athletic coach whose kids were having trouble getting over a bar at 4-1/2 feet who thought that the answer is to raise the bar to 5-1/2 feet and shout ‘Jump higher' would be laughed out of the profession."

Schaeffer says that the punitive measures mandated under No Child Left Behind, under which schools identified as failing risk a range of sanctions that can include being closed or taken over by the state or even an outside contractor, will inevitably fall most harshly on the schools that everybody already knows are struggling: mostly in low-income areas, many of them with high concentrations of minority students. (In Knoxville, Austin-East High School is at risk of being placed in a statewide Achievement School District for low-performing schools.)

And he calls the idea of a state takeover or turnaround of problem schools "magical thinking": "No state has a track record of being able to turn around more than a handful of schools a year, if that."

But Finn says that without honest accounting of school and student performance, there's no incentive for anything to change. "You've got to motivate parents and educators and everybody else to do things differently than they've done them in the past," he says. "And not many people are motivated to change their ways if they're told things are fine the way they are."

McIntyre agrees. "I think it will create really strong interest and pressure to continue to improve public education," he says of the new standards.

And Kincannon notes that TCAPs are only part of the picture. With its portion of the state's Race to the Top money, Knox County is investing in things like the Teacher Advancement Program, which pays outstanding teachers to mentor and collaborate with colleagues, and the Leadership Academy at the University of Tennessee to train aspiring principals.

She also notes the school system's commitment to "formative assessment"—in addition to the "summative assessment" provided by tests—in which students are evaluated on an ongoing basis in the classroom, with adjustments made to address their needs. "I think all of those other things going on will yield things on those test scores," Kincannon says.

The county will have clearer ideas about how and where to focus its resources once the state report card comes out. But for the moment, it at least seems clear that the public-relations effort ahead of the TCAP scores worked. Newly elected school board member Pam Trainor, who was for the past year head of the Knox County Council PTA, says she didn't receive any of the anxious or bewildered parent phone calls that school officials feared.

"The feedback that most of us have gotten has been really positive," she says, "that this is what we need to do."

McIntyre says he thinks parents who saw their children's scores drop had been adequately prepared. And, of course, those whose children continued to perform well even under the stricter standards feel even better than before. And he hopes the effort has laid the groundwork for changing how Knox Countians think about their schools: from satisfaction with the status quo to an understanding that there is a lot of work to do.

"I think it changes the conversation," McIntyre says. "I don't think it's just symbolic."