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In the Nation's Interest

State Spotlight: Tennessee Students’ Visible Education Gains

This past December, while the rest of us were looking ahead to 2018, the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) was busy looking back – specifically, to test score data from 2009-2015.

While standardized test scores and proficiency rates are still the go-to school performance metric, more researchers have turned to measuring how much students are learning from year to year to gauge school effectiveness. Because of the strong correlations between student test scores and factors outside the control of school administrators and educators (such as family income or parental education levels), many see annual learning gains as being a more accurate, albeit still imperfect, reflection of the impact schools themselves have on student learning.

Thus, CEPA’s new working paper uses nationally representative test score data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to measure public school students’ test score growth rates from grades 3 through 8.

The graphic depicting average test score growth rates in each public school district is particularly striking. In looking at the map below, one state in particular – Tennessee – pops out as a mosaic of green (indicating greater growth) in a sea of purple (lower growth):

What makes Tennessee stand apart is how consistently green it is, relative to neighboring states, which, according to the map, are averaging less than a grade level worth of achievement growth per grade. It turns out Tennessee has been quite busy over the past ten years, proposing, implementing, and refining its approach to education.

The most visible change Tennessee has made is to student standards.

Prior to 2009, Tennessee students were performing adequately on state assessments, yet were near the bottom performers according to the NAEP. In short, state standards were too lax, a fact made clear to state policymakers when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported the state had the largest gap between proficiency rates as determined by performance on state exams and percent proficient based on NAEP scores.

Recognizing that their standards and assessments were among the least rigorous in the nation, state leaders charted a new course, and in 2009 received a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant to help implement an education reform plan to develop tougher standards and assessments, as well as tools to help track student performance.  

Tennessee also adopted an educator evaluation system that not only ties performance to student outcomes, but is also designed to provide educators with real, timely feedback to help them become better teachers. (While there is still room for improvement, many state educators say the evaluations are helping.) It will be interesting to see how Tennessee students perform going forward as the evaluation system was not widely implemented until 2011.

While it’s arguable that Tennessee was able to make great initial gains partly due to how far behind they started, it is too soon to say whether the state will sustain these gains. What we can say is this: Tennessee doesn’t show any sign of easing up on education reform. Rather than let their momentum taper off, Tennessee has remained focused on refining its approach to education. For instance, in 2017 the state leaders approved revamping state assessments to more closely match NAEP standards, even if it means recording lower initial student proficiency rates. The continuous push for more rigorous standards might be why students in Tennessee are starting to outpace their peers.

Another possible factor to explain the mosaic of green on CEPA’s map is the additional green Tennessee has recently put into education and how it is being spent.

While almost all policymakers say that quality education is critical for economic prosperity, this commitment isn’t always reflected in public budgets. Not so for Tennessee.

According to Governor Bill Haslam’s office, the administration has invested an additional $1.3 billion in K-12 education. Over a third of that has gone to teacher compensation. While the jury is out on how much per pupil spending really matters, the fact that a large chunk of Tennessee’s additional spending is going toward teacher compensation could help the state to attract and retain high-quality teachers, and we know teacher quality can make all difference in the classroom.

Perhaps most importantly, Tennessee has managed what many others have often failed to do: recognize that improving education outcomes is not a partisan issue.

Tennessee’s education reform timeline shows that policies to improve educational outcomes implemented under a Democrat governor (Phil Bredesen) were enhanced by a Republican (Haslam).

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) also has been influential in helping steer Tennessee’s reform efforts. Established in 2009, SCORE is a nonpartisan research and advocacy group. With a board of directors composed of both philanthropic and business leaders and a steering committee that brings together policymakers, teachers, parents, students, and business leaders, SCORE provides a formal channel for collaboration across stakeholder groups.

While we can’t say for certain which specific policies (or combination thereof) are driving Tennessee’s progress, other states and localities can still learn from Tennessee’s approach.

Rather than simply stating that education is the key to economic prosperity, Tennessee leaders have made investments that are starting to pay off. Tennessee’s path to educational improvement shows commitment and persistence, from which many leaders across the United States focused on the immediate and the short-term could stand to learn. If state legislators are willing to take a step back and evaluate policies and practices, and then make changes as part of a long-term strategy aimed at correcting areas of weakness, those policymakers can have a real impact.