By Sally Absher

On July 29, Knox County Schools issued a press release pertaining to the district academic achievement results for the 2014-15 school year reported by the Tennessee Department of Education. The data includes aggregate grade 3-8 scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) and End of Course (EOC) exams for school systems across the state.

According to the press release, Knox County Schools met all eleven of eleven 2014-15 Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) which are the academic performance targets set by the Tennessee Department of Education.

What a difference a year can make. In 2014, a similar press release bemoaned the fact that KCS met only seven of the eleven AMOs, resulting in the district earning the achievement accountability designation of “Achieve – Not Exemplary.”

Last year, Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre was quick to assign blame on Tennessee not having a fully “aligned” assessment, stating, “Our teachers have implemented Tennessee’s rigorous Common Core State Standards, while our children are still being assessed by a TCAP test that was not designed to measure learning under the new standards.” Results on the high school level End of Course (EOC) assessments were largely consistent with the prior year.

Um… that same “not fully aligned” TCAP test was used again this year.

Here are more highlights from the 2014-15 data for Knox County Schools, straight from the PR folks in the AJ Building:

•             Composite Level 5 score on Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) as well as Level 5—the highest level attainable—for Literacy, Numeracy, and Combined Literacy and Numeracy

•             Excellent progress in closing 11 out of 16 achievement gaps (subject area/subgroup combinations) that are defined by income, race, disability and language

•             At the high school level, improvement in 6 of the 7 subjects tested, with outcomes in 5 of those subjects representing the best performance ever since the new, radically higher academic standards were enacted in 2010

•             Increases in proficiency over last year in 80% of the grade-subject combinations tested (20 out of 25)

McIntyre stated, “These exciting results are further proof that our tremendously talented educators are providing high-quality instruction in our classrooms every day.” He added, “As we embark on a new school year, I am extremely encouraged by our strong and steady progress toward achieving our very ambitious goal of Excellence for Every Child.”

The reaction was a bit more guarded from the State Department of Education. This is the last year Tennessee will use the TCAP. Next year, students will take the TNReady test, a variation of the Smarter Balanced assessment.

Marta Aldrich of wrote, “Ultimately, the just-released 2014-15 scores represent the last hurrah before the state launches its new academic checkup, which is designed to ensure that all students are moving forward, on track to graduate from high school, and able to be successful in post-secondary school and the workplace.”

State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen said in June, “We do know that the first year of TNReady … we are going to have a dip. There is the expectation that proficiency will go down, because we are moving forward. There is an expectation that our scores next year, like any new assessment, will go down. But we hope that’s a one-year story.”

In spite of the carefully scripted PR, the issues are much deeper than which high-stakes assessment is used.

This writer will continue to disagree that the new standards are “radically higher academic standards,” since much of the “rigor” can be explained by the fact that they are simply not developmentally appropriate for most elementary school children, and the high school math standards cover only Algebra I with some Algebra 2 and Geometry (with NO pathway to Calculus), and that one member of the validation committee said the high school English/Language Arts standards would leave high school graduates with “7th grade literacy skills.”

As we have pointed out before, “proficiency” is determined by “cut scores” that change from year to year, and are determined after the tests have been taken.

And comparing proficiency scores from year to year ignores variables that teachers have little control over. Last year, KCS 3rd grade students saw a 9.3% drop in reading/Language Arts (RLA) proficiency compared to 3rd graders the previous year. These same students, in 4th grade this year, also showed a 4% drop in RLA proficiency compared to 4th graders the prior year. These are the students who learned to read under the “radically higher academic standards” of Common Core.

In fact, RLA proficiency scores are lower than 2010 levels in all grades except 7th and 8th.  Hmmm.

And despite a composite Level 5 score on TVAAS, as well as a Level 5 for Literacy, Numeracy, and Combined Literacy and Numeracy, many schools were NOT Level 5, and many teachers earned an evaluation score of 1 or 2 based on these test scores, putting their very career at risk.

Why? Because of a deeply flawed, poorly designed rating and evaluation system based on a single high stakes assessment.

One Knox County teacher spoke for many when he said,  “TVAAS is junk no matter what it shows – gains, losses – makes no difference…to try to assign value to it in any way is to try to make it valid…”