Tennessee's Deal with the Devil
Kudos to Jim Horn for talking about Tennessee ed deform with facts and figures. Don't miss this review of Jim's fine book The Mismeasure of Edcation.
by Jim Horn
Part 1: NAEP and ACT
When Tennessee accepted the millions of dollars and grant-writing help from the corporate foundations to get their state application in shape to win the $501 million grant from Race to the Top in 2010, Tennessee accepted the role as poster state for corporate education reform, along with all the visibility that comes with it. In doing so, a deal was made that cost the state that tiny part of its educational soul and integrity that had not already sucked away by 25 years of value-added testing.
Arne Duncan has visited Tennessee a number of times (with and without his boss) since 2010, and even now Duncan and Obama continue to tout the "Tennessee miracle" as a model for the nation. On MSNBC last week, Duncan told Chis Hayes that Tennessee took the tough steps in 2009 to do what was needed (adopt tougher tests) and that, as a result, on 2013 NAEP tests, the state showed the greatest growth of any state in the nation.
What Duncan did not say, of course, is that the ranking he attributes to TN is based on big doses of dissembling, spin, and outright lying. See this Brookings analysis for details, but here is the gist of why Haslam and Duncan are not be believed:
Governor Haslam's chart is based on a very crude statistic. Tennessee's gains on all four NAEP tests add up to 21.80 pointsÃ¢€”and DC's to 22.22Ã¢€”but the tests have different scales. A one-point gain on NAEP's 4th grade math test is not the same as a one-point gain on the 8th grade reading test. The NAEP website warns users, "Since these scales are calculated independently from each other, we cannot compare scale scores across subjects and grades." The same goes for adding scale score gains from the different tests. If you search the NAEP website for a statistic like the one on Governor Haslam's chartÃ¢€”combining gains on all four tests--you won't find one.
To conclude the discussion of TN's gains, here is a summary of its statistically significant gains relative to the other 49 states and the District of Columbia:
4th Grade Math: Greater than 42 states. Not significantly greater than 8 states.
8th Grade Math: Greater than 15 states. Not significantly greater than 35 states.
4th Grade Reading: Greater than 22 states. Not significantly greater than 28 states.
8th Grade Reading: Greater than 34 states. Not significantly greater than 16 states.
Pop! goes the balloon.
But these are not the only facts that weigh heavily on Duncan and Haslam's gas bags that are quickly descending. When we look at Tennessee's NAEP performance just two years earlier from 2011, we see plenty of room for Tennessee to improve in 2013, since 2011 represented a free fall in the rankings and a further opening of the achievement gaps, two facts that neither Duncan or Haslam will never mention:
Tennessee's results also show that economically disadvantaged students in neighboring states such as Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and North Carolina now score higher in every tested area than do poor students in Tennessee. "We have an educational emergency. These results underline the urgency of pressing forward with the necessary reforms," Ralph Schulz of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce said. "If we're going to ensure the future economic prosperity of our state, we canÃ¢€™t go back -- we have to step up."
The state dropped from 45 to 46 in the nation in fourth-grade math; 39 to 41 in fourth-grade reading; 43 to 45 in eighth-grade math; and 34 to 41 in eighth-grade reading. Twenty-six percent of fourth-grade students are proficient in reading, and 30 percent are proficient in math. Twenty-seven percent of eighth-grade students are proficient in reading, and 24 percent are proficient in math.
Tennessee also participates in an ongoing NAEP pilot assessment, which tested 12th graders in Math and Reading in 2009 and 2013. Below is a chart from NAEP that represents where Tennessee's 12th grade proficiency levels stand in comparison to the other states that participate.
Go to for the chart
The Tennessee mirage is confirmed, too, by TN's ranking among states on the ACT, which remains near the bottom of the nation. In 2013, Tennessee ranked 47th in college readiness as measured by the ACT. In 2014, Tennessee ranked 45th. Congratulations, Governor Haslam!
Go to for another chart