What to Make of Latest TCAP Scores

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The schools story has become so complicated that it’s unclear what’s to be made of the latest batch of TCAP standardized test scores released this week.

The scores got generally positive notices from officials of the state Department of Education and the unified Shelby County School System. Scores increased for the majority of school districts in Tennessee in nearly every subject. In its last year of independence, Memphis City Schools showed increased proficiency in math, science, and social studies. The legacy Shelby County School system did the same, and also improved in reading.

But “improved” or "increased" compared to what? The scoring system — the curve for those of you in the education game — changed a couple of years ago, making long-term comparisons impossible. There are new subgroups of schools, such as the Achievement School District and the Innovation Zone (I confess to not knowing there was such a thing). Apples to apples has become apples to oranges to bananas to mangoes to papayas. And scores for individual schools, including public charter schools, have not been released yet.

More on that in a minute, but first the official statements.

“Sustained improvements across the state show that our efforts to raise student outcomes are working,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “Our students, teachers, and administrators worked incredibly hard. The results prove that if we continue to maintain high expectations and quality support for our teachers, our students will continue to grow.”

David Stephens, deputy superintendent for the Shelby County Schools, was more restrained. Legacy MCS and legacy SCS districts both earned an overall Level 5 rating for student growth - the highest level of growth possible. In grades 3-8 Reading/Language Arts, legacy MCS showed a slight decrease (-0.4), while legacy SCS showed a slight increase (+1.1). The details are here.

“We realize that we still have work to do, but are very pleased with these accomplishments, especially in the midst of a school year involving the merging of two systems. The results are proof that our teachers and leaders continued to effectively advance student achievement in the classrooms, while adjusting to changes at the district level and preparing for a unified district."

Statewide, 30 districts saw double-digit gains in Algebra I, some gaining more than 25 percentage points. More than 50 districts saw double-digit gains in Algebra II, some reporting growth over 40 percentage points.

Such gains are cause for inspection as well as celebration because they are probably due to a major change in the test-taking population or a small sample, which magnifies the change. If such a thing were replicable on a large scale, then the wizards who did it would be running every public and private education outfit in the country.

In Memphis, the seven Innovation Zone schools, which are hard cases like the ASD schools, showed an increase in proficiency from the previous year (Math +10, Reading +2.4, Science +13.4, Social Studies +11.9) that was at a higher rate than the state and the ASD.

Credit where credit is due, but the focus on small groups of schools at a time when the biggest school system merger in American history is nigh seems, well, curious.

Congratulations to all those who did better. But determining "better" these days is a little bit like making up a football schedule. If you can't find someone somewhere you can beat somehow then you're not trying very hard.

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