Recently, leaders across Tennessee lauded the results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. And they should. Tennessee ranks first in an education statistic, and it's a good one: the fastest improving state in the past two years in terms of math and reading scores, as measured by NAEP.
That's good news. Despite some claims, though, it's very difficult to say results on the 2013 NAEP are a direct result of reforms that took place in 2011 and 2012. States that haven't adopted reforms along the lines of Tennessee's still had higher scores overall. And of course, it's easier to grow when you have a long way to go — Tennessee has historically been among the NAEP's lowest performing states.
Let's take a look at the data on a deeper level, though, and see what's been happening. For the sake of this comparison, I'm going to look at Tennessee and Kentucky — a similarly situated Southeastern state with a nearly identical level of students in poverty and/or on free/reduced lunch. I'm going to look at 20-year trends to see what we can learn from the overall education work in both states. Here goes:
1992 KY 215 TN 211
2013 KY 241 TN 240
Let's look at the percentage of students in each state who test at or above basic — this is short of the mastery demonstrated by the score of proficient, but still indicates a basic understanding of the concept. Below basic is the lowest score, and is frankly unacceptable.
In 1992, 51 percent of Kentucky kids tested at or above basic, and in Tennessee, it was 47 percent. Now, 84 percent of Kentucky kids are at or above basic in fourth-grade math, while only 80 percent can say the same in Tennessee. Both states posted 33-point gains in this important number over the past 20 years, and Kentucky remains 4 points ahead of Tennessee. A similar result is seen in all categories, by the way, making it difficult to pin down a specific policy responsible for these long-term gains.
Now let's look at the two states and how they are doing with their poorest students, those on free or reduced lunch. One of the key goals of many involved in education is moving the lowest performing kids forward quickly.
Free/Reduced Lunch Fourth-Grade Math Scores
KY 232 TN 228
Before I go further, I want to point out that Kentucky doesn't use value-added data for teacher evaluations and has no charter schools; its teachers are awarded tenure after four years; and it hasn't adopted any of the reforms Tennessee's current leaders tell us are essential to improving scores. In fact, their commissioner has openly expressed skepticism of any evaluation system that bases any part of a teacher's score on value-added data. As the rest of the data will demonstrate, both Kentucky and Tennessee have posted gains over time on NAEP — in most categories, Kentucky started out tied or very slightly ahead of Tennessee.
Today, Kentucky remains ahead. Kentucky posted some pretty big gains in the mid-'90s and again from 2003-2009. Since then, they've held fairly steady. That's an expected result, by the way — a big gain followed by steady maintenance of the new level. For Tennessee, that won't be enough, but celebrating the big gain is certainly warranted. It's also important to take care in assigning causality.
OK, back to the data.
1992 KY 262 TN 259
2013 KY 281 TN 278
Free/Reduced Lunch Eighth-Grade Math Scores
KY 268 TN 265
1992 KY 213 TN 212
2013 KY 224 TN 220
Free/Reduced Lunch Fourth-Grade Reading Scores
KY 213 TN 205
1998 KY 262 TN 259
2013 KY 270 TN 265
Free/Reduced Lunch Eighth-Grade Reading Scores
KY 258 TN 256
As the data shows, Kentucky and Tennessee in many cases posted similar net gains over time, with Kentucky seeing big jumps in the mid-'90s and again in the early part of the last decade. In all categories, Kentucky's students still outperform Tennessee, though in some cases that gap is narrowing. Also, in all subjects, Kentucky's students on free/reduced lunch outperform Tennessee's students on free/reduced lunch.
Now, about those free lunch scores ...
Possibly the most interesting (and troubling) finding in this data is the widening of the gap between free/reduced lunch students and those not eligible. Tennessee has a significant population of students who qualify, as does Kentucky, and one of the key aims of reform is to ensure that gaps are closed and that those with the most challenges get more opportunity. In every category except eighth-grade reading, this gap widened over the past two years.
The fourth-grade scores in particular present rapidly widening gaps. Additionally, students on free/reduced lunch saw their scores improve less than those not on free/reduced lunch by significant margins.
While we're told that "poverty is not an excuse," it certainly appears to be a factor in terms of student achievement growth in Tennessee. While we have had significant reforms in some of our poorest urban communities, the gap between poor and better-off students widened in the past two years.
Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth. But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the past two years as a validation of any particular policy. Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap — an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.
Andy Spears is a co-publisher of Tennessee Education Report, where a version of this story first appeared. He runs Nashville-based policy consulting firm Spears Strategy.