Pay No Attention To The Falling Tennessee Reading Test Scores

To ‘reformers,’ particularly ones in Tennessee, only two things matter in education: Grades 3-8 Math scores and grades 3-8 Reading scores.  This was what got them the shout out from The President of The United States in the last State of the Union address.  Tennessee had the greatest combined 4th and 8th grade math and reading gains of any state.

When it came out later that their 12th grade NAEP scores did not have these gains, they said that the 12th graders didn’t have the opportunity to get the full ‘reform’ treatment that the younger students got.

The Tennessee state tests are called the TCAPs.  This year there was a fiasco when the education department, led by former TFA VP and former husband of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman, announced that they were going to be late with the test scores.  This raised a lot of suspicion that maybe they were thinking of ways to spin this data.  I’m not sure if this is what happened since in Tennessee, they can spin data very fast so I don’t think this would cause the delay.  Still, there was a delay which at least made them demonstrate that they could not meet an important deadline.

So the scores came out this week and, in true Louisiana style, they are celebrating the results.  But in the celebration they are downplaying the two most important tests of all, 3-8 math and 3-8 reading.  For a few years those scores were steadily increasing.  Reformers always assume that score increases can continue year after, when, of course, they are bound to level off or even go down.  This is what happened this year on the two big results.

3-8 Reading dropped from 50.3% to 49.5% while 3-8 Math increased from 50.7% to 51.3%.  Now these are small changes and not tremendously ‘statistically significant’ either way.  But they are pretty ‘flat’ which is an embarrassment to them.  Here is the graph showing the past 5 years of scores for Math and Reading.  You math geeks out there will understand when I say that the second derivative of their test scores graph is negative.  (Note:  They also had a Science bar graph showing steady improvement.  It was there, I figure, to draw attention away from the lack of progress on the big two scores, so I removed it.)

2014_tcap_3-8aLooking at the scores broken down by grade, one irony is that the largest drop of any grade in any subject was 3rd grade reading which dropped from 48.8% to 43.8%, a drop of 5%.  This might be statistically significant, but more importantly, this is the group of students who had the most opportunity to benefit from the reforms put in place in Tennessee, so ‘reformers’ should expect that group of 3rd graders to outperform previous groups.  Third grade math also dropped from 59% to 56.5%.

I don’t want to make too much about test scores since they are controlled by the state, with cut scores and things like that and they can easily manufacture a miracle next year and say that 2014 was an anomaly.  I suppose the national common core tests, which TN recently pulled out of, would have one benefit in that it wouldn’t be as easy for states to manipulate the results.  There are other, much less costly, ways to ensure that state tests are of comparable difficulty.  I’m pretty good at looking at a math test and judging how difficult it is.  Maybe state tests can go to some impartial people who can expertly gauge the difficulty of the test.  I haven’t worked out all the details yet.  Certainly there are tests like the SAT, AP, and ACT which are national tests and states can lie all they want on their own tests, but eventually they will have to explain why their SAT, AP, and ACT scores are so low, like in Louisiana.

‘Reformers’ are slick.  They get a whole bunch of data and focus on the things they want.  The next year they can focus on completely different things if it makes them look good.

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19 Responses to Pay No Attention To The Falling Tennessee Reading Test Scores

  1. Joe Nathan says:

    Gross over-simplications that to reformers, the only things that matter are reading and math test scores.

    • Linda says:

      The only thing that matters is creating more “failures” ripe for privatization. Catch up Joe.

    • Bill H says:

      According to most reformers and policy-makers, all that matters are test scores. Anything else is secondary in comparison, if anything.

  2. Dufrense says:

    You’re right, Joe. Gary could have added abolishing tenure, instituting merit pay, expanding charter scholols, and basing a portion of teachers’ evaluations on students’ test scores.

  3. yeti says:


    Thx for the data review. There are several undercurrents to be aware of in interpreting the datastream. 1) My unfounded belief on the delay is that they needed to review sped results more closely because there were some difficulties there. 2) Cut scores do not appear to be moving around a lot yoy, although you never know. 3) the 2nd derivative is as you say. Stepping back and squinting though, the impression is that nothing is moving the needle lately on reading while math is at least trending as you would hope for a new system during a period of adjustment to a test redesign of a few yrs ago. This is further borne out in HS math results which were really good. 4) Many districts taught CC this yr and yet all are taking this not-quite CC-aligned TCAP. My impression is this alignment problem is worse for reading. This will be the case next yr as well as PARCC will not be used next yr and even more districts will teach to CC. 5) finally many schools have only this last couple yrs moved to having students rotate classes starting in 3rd grade (separate ela, math, etc. teachers). This has not been easy. I am not surprised that the weak link is 3rd grade reading, for this reason.

    • tlmerrie says:

      You didn’t specifically mention it I don’t think but at least for Algebra I the cut scores changed and several SPI’s were removed from the test so the test definitely changed. My students came back with very different comments this year than in the past about the test. This surprised me because these weren’t students who had sat through the test before but had used the same materials (available on state website) to prep as classes that came before them.

      To avoid any accusations we don’t allow math teachers to administer or proctor Algebra I or Algebra II tests in my school so I didn’t even get a glimpse of the test, but a SpEd teacher who did a read aloud for it last year and this year remarked on how much easier their version was. She seemed to be really shocked by it.

      As for Common Core, I can’t think of anyone I know who actually taught the ‘tasks’ that we were supposed to include for common core. I think everyone just did the same old thing they had done in the past minus the deleted SPI’s. That’s the plan for next year too. I actually loved the Common Core training on how to teach the tasks I attended in the summer of 2013, but I couldn’t have kept scores up if I’d actually used it. I don’t see how anyone can say math scores went up as compared to the year before if so much changed.

      • me says:

        Algebra I and II changes may well be the reason for those results this yr, good theory!

    • Educator says:

      I am not in Tennessee but what I’ve seen in my state is that test scores do go up each year once a new testing system is put in place. It would seem to make sense because 1) the teachers get used to the new test and adjust accordingly and 2) the students get used to it to. This happened since NCLB with our state testing – scores went up year after year, schools celebrated it year after year, until it reached it’s peak around the 2010-ish range. It never did get to that 100% by 2014, which is impossible anyhow.

      So it’s hard to attribute these results to any new reforms I’d think.

  4. TN Mom says:

    The real reason the NAEP scores jumped so high in TN last year was because of a law that was passed the year before in TN prohibiting non-proficient 3rd graders from being promoted to 4th grade. No more social promotion for 3rd graders if they couldn’t pass the standardized tests. So, for the first time ever in TN last year, the failing kids were kept behind in 3rd grade. Only “proficient” 4th graders took the NAEP. Voila! When you eliminate the low scoring students, your state average magically improves and you become “the fastest improving state in the nation”.

    Here is a link to the laws:

    • TN Mom says:

      The magic won’t happen the next time NAEP rolls around in 2015. By then, they’ll have new data to cherry-pick and feed gullible politicians.

    • Educator says:

      Wow, TN keeps 3rd graders back based off of 1 standardized test? I guess this is what the phrase “high stakes for teachers high stakes for students” means. I didn’t understand the students part as I was only aware that teachers and principals were getting fired for test results.

      How many 3rd graders got held back then? If my state held back students who didn’t score proficient on a standardized exam we’d have tens of thousands of students repeating school (my estimate).

  5. Thanks for writing a good post! I can’t stand KHuff… One of my favorite posts of yours is about him debating a straw man. There’s a hyperlink to that particular post on my website.

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