Good Intentions Meets Ineffective Bureaucracy

May 26, 2023 at 09:59 am by JC Bowman

Educators have argued about approaches to reading instruction since public education began. A one-size-fits-all solution to reading does not work for everyone. Our state has correctly placed literacy as a high priority. We support all efforts to improve literacy in our state.

At Professional Educators of Tennessee, we view the assessment of students much like a getting school picture made. It may not be an accurate depiction, but it is what the student looks like on that day. However, this year the stakes have never been higher for third-grade students. 

Reading is the fundamental foundation for all learning. Reading proficiently by third grade is a crucial target for every student. If students cannot read at grade level by third grade, it is much harder to catch up with their peers and succeed further in their educational journey.

Third-grade reading proficiency has been called the most important benchmark in a student’s academic career. The move from third grade to fourth grade also begins the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” other material.

The question for policymakers and stakeholders alike is, “Do we trust a high-stakes test administered once a year, or not?”

Classroom observations by trained personnel, along with teacher and principal input, would likely produce far more consistent and reliable data for assessing the quality of teaching and student progress than scores on an annual assessment.

The Tennessee Department of Education released statewide average scores from the spring 2023 Tennessee Comprehensive Academic Program (TCAP) tests on Friday afternoon, May 19th, 2023.  This left students, parents, schools, and districts scrambling now and rushing to meet new deadlines made necessary by the 2021 “third-grade retention law” now tied to statewide standardized testing. Student retention has been in the law since 2011.  In addition, the Tennessee State Board also didn’t finish with the rules on what constitutes “adequate growth” until Friday, May 19th, 2023.   

Third-grade students are now put into one of four categories based on their TCAP scores: 1) Exceeds Expectations. Moving on to fourth grade; 2) Meets Expectations. Moving on to fourth grade. 3) Approaching Expectations. Choice of whether to go to summer school or be tutored the entire fourth-grade year. Districts and schools are responsible for providing this. The state has provided Tennessee All Core since the COVID-19 pandemic as a funding source. It provides small-group tutoring and is intensive; and, Below Expectations: Students who score below the top two categories must do both summer school and intensive tutoring.

The implementation and timeline of the new law have been classic examples of good intentions meeting ineffective bureaucracy. This is something that most people have agreed on while discussing this issue. State Senator Jon Lundberg indicated that he had concerns “with the rollout and the communication to parents.” State Representative Scott Cepicky also recognized the “need for improved communications from state and district officials.” 

Many taxpayers might consider the tone-deaf nature of the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Review Committee  adding “another year for British-based NCS Pearson to administer TNReady and increase the total contract to $132 million from $93 million” to the list of ineptitudes. Taxpayers certainly need a fiscal accounting of the cost of all statewide testing. Is the program cost-efficient? Does it meet student needs?

When students are behind, the state standardized assessment measures knowledge and skills that students lack. The results have little capacity to inform teachers and other education stakeholders of the path to best assist those students. For students who are excelling, testing only grade-level material also fails to provide feedback that can move them ahead to advanced academic content.

Tennessee should move to progress monitoring instead of end-of-year standardized testing, just as Florida did recently. This would give teachers and parents more impactful and timely input on student performance. It would allow us to better adjust to make sure children can in fact read proficiently.

Tennessee was correct to place such a high priority on literacy. Now let’s have an assessment system with progress monitoring that allows us to make actionable decisions in real-time. Moving away from high-stakes testing will increase instruction time, and progress monitoring will provide timely and useful feedback for student goals, including reading proficiency.

Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds will be taking the reigns of the Tennessee Department of Education on July 1, 2023.  Can she run a more efficient agency than her predecessor? We can only hope. Nothing unites policymakers and stakeholders in Tennessee like wasted tax dollars and inefficient government.     


 JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

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