Sunday, August 14, 2011

Some thoughts on TCAP scores

By now you may have seen the partial results of last year's TCAP scores.  The state has released the actual achievement levels for grades 3-8 for each district, the change over last year's scores, and the list of High Priority schools and districts in Tennessee based on Adequate Yearly Progress.

I'll start by saying that nobody should be satisfied with the scores of Humboldt City Schools.  As the Humboldt Chronicle pointed out in last week's newspaper, Humboldt was the bottom among the five districts in Gibson County, and among the lowest scoring districts in the state in the percentage of students scoring at the Proficient and Advanced levels.  Nobody wants to see their school district in this list, and I am certainly among those frustrated that our students aren't scoring as high as most other districts in the state.

Now, with that said, I think it is imperative we look a little deeper into the numbers and get a more accurate assessment of where we are.  There are stark differences in the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students in districts like Humboldt compared to others.  There are also stark differences nationwide in the achievement levels of students considered Economically Disadvantaged (ED) compared to others.

Looking at district scores through this lens, it is easy to see the correlation between the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch and the achievement scores.  The five districts across the state that scored the highest on TCAP tests were Williamson County, Maryville, Franklin, Johnson City, and Newport.  The percentage of ED students in these districts ranged from 11% in Williamson to 55% in Newport and Johnson City.  The five districts scoring the lowest on TCAP tests were Memphis, Haywood County, Fayette County, Humboldt, and Lake County.  Their percentage of ED students ranged from 76% in Lake County to 89% in Memphis.  Humboldt comes in at 87% of students Economically Disadvantaged.

I don't think there is any denying the fact that districts with higher percentages of Economically Disadvantaged students are going to show lower overall test scores.  It's not as simple as saying poorer students can't learn as well as richer ones; that's not the explanation.  The explanation is most likely that those kids, as a whole, aren't getting the quality daycare before Kindergarten, are dealing with more unstable home environments, and are living in a culture that doesn't value education as much as middle and higher income households.  Those are broad statements, and certainly are not the rule for all of these kids, but even the governor of Tennessee recently recognized the disparity in educational achievement between different demographic groups of children.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman called the achievement gaps between poor and more affluent children and between African-American and white children "astounding and unacceptable" in Tennessee.  Governor Haslam followed, saying: "I'll go further than that: Those gaps are immoral, and if we want to change our state, that's what we have to change."

This is the piece of the puzzle that should make us proud of Humboldt City Schools and the work they are doing.  In the last few weeks since TCAP scores were released, Superintendent Steve Bayko has received several letters commending him for the gains Humboldt made in closing this achievement gap.  Commissioner Huffman sent him an e-mail praising the "impressive" gains in achievement and set up a phone conversation to discuss the measures Humboldt has taken to register this improvement. 

Making the grade is certainly paramount, but making progress toward the state achievement goals is very important under the No Child Left Behind law.  Schools must make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in order to be considered in good standing with the state.  Of the five districts in Gibson County, two elementary schools are on the state's High Priority list for not making AYP.  Trenton has not made AYP two consecutive years, and Milan has not made AYP for the third year in a row.  Humboldt is not on this list.

Let me reiterate that I am not condoning underachievement and am not trying to spin the numbers to make it look better for Humboldt.  I just think there is more to the story than just simply taking a district-level snapshot of the test scores.  We have a long way to go in Humboldt, but it's clear that the district is making progress toward closing that achievement gap.  And I think we'll see when the full Report Card is released that when you break it down into economic and demographic subgroups, Humboldt's children are probably performing at about the same level as our neighbors.


  1. I am glad that you are pointing out that these test scores are mere "snapshots" of a student's ability level. However, let not the focus be solely on test scores. NCLB reform is in the making and educators across the United States agree that the focus on one test to determine the success of a school is laughable at best. We are only 2 years away from when 100% proficiency from EVERY student (SPED to gifted) is expected; and if that is not met, you are considered a failing school. That is, one child fails because his parent does force him to go to school regularly, or if one child fails because of a learning disability, or one child fails because they are simply having, as we all do, a bad day, then the school is labeled failing. Let us look at the ridiculous policies that are tying are hands and forcing teacher to teach to tests rather than create new initiatives that we believe will magically improve student achievement. We have schools, as I am sure you do as well in Humboldt, with a plethora of teachers with advanced degrees and the most up-to-date knowledge of educational research. Yet, they lack the autonomy to teach the way the know best because of federal policies from lawmakers that have never taught anybody anything in their life.
    We should examine student gains over the course of a year and not simply put them in either "proficient" or "not proficient" categories. There are so many variables that go into the success on an individual child and you touched upon a few: SES and culture being two of them. Nonetheless, the education system as a whole is broken. This is not to say that the disparity in the achievement gaps across the US (or for your sake Humboldt Co) are something of a concern, but we need to makes sure our lens is not inappropriately focused merely on test scores. We should be looking educational policy, the teacher evaluation process, principal credentials and evaluations, influence of unions, parent involvement, etc. Those who make these decisions should spend a year in a classroom with a teacher to see not only the amazing things they do on a daily basis, the hours they spend working outside of the classroom, the little they get paid, but also the political nonsense that prevents them from doing what they know works because somebody told them to use a program in their school after they didn't make AYP the year before. This teacher may have had 100% proficiency in their classroom, but that won't make a difference, and now they are being told to do something different that what they did the year before. I am rambling now, but the point here is again, remove yourself from the microscope with the lens on student test scores and take a step back to look at many of the fundamental issues that are causing the lack of student gains across the country and in your county.

  2. Anthony has correctly diagnosed some of the problems with assessment tests. Which body of experts determines the spectrum of knowledge that a child at each grade level "should" posses? Better to teach children HOW to learn and to LOVE to learn than mere facts that are necessary to pass a test. --We can all remember the teachers for whom we merely memorized facts only to regurgitate on an exam and quickly forget them--and those for whom we diligently studied the material because it was interesting and meaningful.
    Lee, your information about the socioeconomics of our city schools makes me wonder how closely those ratios parallel the socioeconomics of the broader Humboldt student population. In a purely anecdotal perspective--ie that of our family and near neighbors, it seems as though those who might raise the socioeconomic profile of our public schools choose to send their children to private or home schools. The parents who would likely be very involved in the public school system are the same ones who feel that they must choose the best education they can for their sons and daughters, and in turn have removed from our city schools those who might improve overall scores. --You've got a though job ahead of you. May the Lord bless you.

  3. Anthony, I agree with everything you're saying. I think it's ludicrous that we solely base our assessment of school achievement on yearly standardized tests, and I really hope you're right when you say there is change coming. Unfortunately, this is the game we have to play, as you are well aware being a teacher yourself. We're stuck having to adapt teaching styles and programs to maximize test scores and not necessarily maximize learning. If I had any control over NCLB or federal education policy there would definitely be changes. I understand and respect the intent of the law, but when you try to apply it to real people and real situations in the classroom, it's a one-size-fits-all approach that I think falls short of truly assessing the quality of education.
    I look at the programs, curriculum, facilities, teachers, and administration when making my opinion about quality. The question for me is not whether Humboldt "ranks" in the bottom in TCAP scores. That doesn't tell me anything about how my children will be educated. For me, the question is simply whether I believe my children will have the opportunity to learn in our schools. So far, nothing has made me believe they won't, and in fact, I have only been convinced they will have a good education.
    Sharon, I agree with you, as well. I don't know the exact percentage of children in the city of Humboldt that would be considered economically disadvantaged, but I don't think you're anecdotal perspective is far from the truth. That's the so-called vicious cycle we are stuck in. The parents that are more likely to be involved in the schools are the same ones that are choosing to go to private schools or home school their children.
    So, in my opinion, we should be focusing on what we can control in this district. We can't make people send their kids here and we can't make parents read to their children at night. What we can do is make sure we are providing the best curriculum, the most innovative programs, and the most effective teachers we can get in facilities that are conducive to learning. That's the only way we ensure access to quality education in Humboldt and the only way we have a chance to improve on the state tests. Once we have done that, then we can actively market our schools and try to recruit parents to our district because we know we have quality. If it works and enrollment increases, that's great because we know got there through quality. If people still don't choose Humboldt, at least we know we are doing everything we can to provide the best possible education to the children of Humboldt.
    Thanks to both of you for the comments and encouragement.

  4. Lee, I know at East I think it's around 90 percent that are ED. And I agree completely with the others that have posted. I hate that everythin that we have taught all year comes down to one test that we don't know completely about. Everything is now about "teaching the standards" instead of teaching the students. One thing that is going to have to change is parental involvement. I can usually tell that my higher students have parents that are working with them at home. I am only 1 person and can only do so much in a school day. I am sad that we are at the bottom of the list, but we are making great gains and I am proud to tell others that I am a teacher in Humboldt City Schools!!

  5. Katie, thank you for being a teacher that cares about her students and does everything possible to help them succeed. You're exactly right in that you are just one teacher, but every one teacher is valuable and every one teacher is important to our school children. It's teachers like you that were part of the gains we saw last year, and I expect that with teachers like you, we will see more gains this year. I have pride in our schools, too, and it's always nice to hear other people say they are proud. I hope the pride you have encourages more involvement from your students' parents. Thanks for your comment!