Students at Ford Road
Students at Ford Road Elementary School, in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, walk down the hallway on Thursday. The school’s test scores have gone up dramatically since it entered the I-Zone.

Last Thursday, as state politicians and educators celebrated the state’s performance on the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, 6th graders at Colonial Middle School, an arts-focused school, were discussing data day, a regular part of the school’s cycle during which students in the middle school graph and track their performance in all of their classes.

“We can keep up with our grades,” said Ariel Amos, one of the students. “The graphs help.” Each student has a folder with a chart for each course; high scores were colored in with green colored pencil, while lower scores were colored in with yellow or red.

That focus on data and accountability was one of the policy emphases state officials cited to explain Tennessee students’ growth on on the 4th and 8th grade math and reading tests: Scores went up more than in any other state in the country this year. While NAEP scores aren’t broken down by school or by district, educators in Shelby County schools said they’d seen improvements in many local schools that lined up with the increase in NAEP results.

“NAEP is a good measuring stick to compare Tennessee to other states,” said Antonio Burt, the principal at Ford Road Elementary School. “Tennessee has put emphasis on Common Core and teacher work. By Tennessee starting early and being proactive, now you’re seeing dividends.”

Both Ford Road Elementary and Colonial Middle School have both seen significant improvement in their students’ performance on state tests in recent years, which principals at both schools tied to using data to drive instruction, better evaluation of teachers, and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states nationally. But educators at both schools also raised concerns about the persistent achievement gaps between demographic groups in the state.

Data-Driven Instruction and Common Core

Marty Griffin, the principal at Colonial Middle School, an arts-focused school that took the NAEP this year, said that soon after the state’s standards changed four years ago, just 13 percent of the school’s students scored proficient and advanced on state standardized tests. But the school’s focus on using data to improve instruction has gone along with increases in students’ test scores, and last year, 45 percent of the school’s students scored that well, he said.

Kevin Sanford, a middle school math teacher, said the improved scores reflected better education in the state’s schools. He said there had been a shift in his teaching since new standards and evaluations came into play: He focused on building students’ basic skills, like multiplication and addition, but also on analysis and explanation.

Adriene Hutton, an 8th grade English language arts teacher, agreed, saying that NAEP wasn’t the kind of test that students automatically take seriously, as it doesn’t affect their grades. But, she said, the entire school has focused increasingly on data and getting students ready for tests. “They know it’s important,” said Hutton. Hutton also said that the district’s focus on reading and Common Core-focused reading was also helping.

Teachers at Ford Road Elementary, which is in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a group of turnaround schools, have also focused on using data from students’ test to determine what needs to be taught or retaught.

Kimberly Rhodes, a 4th grade English language arts teacher at Ford Road, said that was part of dramatic improvements in schools in her eight years teaching. “Before I might give a test every two weeks,” she said. Now, she said, “it actually drives instruction,” she said. “I can say, ‘I know what you need.'”

Some teachers were more concerned about the focus on testing. One 3rd grade teacher at a Shelby County school, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid alienating her principal, said, “We’ve always known this day was coming, when it was all teaching to the test. Well, now it’s here.”

Teacher Evaluations

New teacher evaluation systems also got credit at the state level for the NAEP gains. Ford Road principal Burt said that the changes helped increase expectations and articulate a standard of excellence for teachers. He said that many had embraced the change–but not all.

Rhodes said that the evaluation rubric helped clarify expectations. “Evaluations — for me, I feel like it makes me a better teacher,” she said.

Math teacher Sanford said firmly that regardless of all the policy shifts, “the explanation for the growth is that teachers care about the kids.”

Data wall
Check out the “data wall” in the background in a sixth grade class at Colonial Middle School. Students have a data day once a month where they track progress in all of their classes.

Achievement Gaps 

 NAEP scores showed persistent achievement gaps between black and white students and between Hispanic and white students in the state, especially at the 4th grade level. Shelby County teachers weren’t surprised by the finding.

“As an African-American, I want our students to perform as well as any other students,” said Rhodes. “I try to increase their exposure,” she said, to vocabulary and to ideas they might not otherwise encounter.

Ford Road principal Burt said the early achievement gaps in 4th grade were concerning because, too often, “achievement gaps start so early…and then they never get closed.”

Burt raised concerns about the amount of change in schools serving Memphis’s and the state’s low-income minority students. “Are we still working to create a system of success rather than silos of success?” Burt asked.