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Remaking the Grade

With the state tightening local education standards, Bredesen, Frist, and Wharton warn of a drop in student proficiency.



A few years ago, Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen realized something: The state tells 85 percent of its eighth graders they're proficient in math.

On national assessments, however, only 21 percent of Tennessee's eighth graders are deemed proficient in the subject.

"There's no explanation for that other than we have easy tests," Bredesen told a group at the University of Memphis' Fogelman Executive Center last week. "We're not setting a very high standard."

With representatives from both local school systems attending, Bredesen, state education commissioner Tim Webb, and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist were in Memphis last week as part of the First to the Top Coalition launch. The coalition, a statewide alliance of business, community, and education groups, is beginning by warning parents and teachers that student test scores will drop — maybe drastically — this fall.

"You will see a drop in proficiency levels across the state," said Memphis City Schools board commissioner Tomeka Hart. "It will happen. That's what happens when you set a higher bar. It doesn't mean our students have lost knowledge."

Like more than 30 other states in recent months, Tennessee is aligning state standards to national education standards. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, many states weakened their standards to avoid being penalized, but with the Race to the Top challenge, states applying for the second round of funding get extra points for adopting the national criteria.

Tennessee began looking at its measures in 2007 when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave it an "F" for lacking high standards in the classroom.

"When compared to the other Southern states, we remain at the bottom, and Southern states have traditionally been at the bottom when compared to the rest of the nation," Hart said.

The state is expected to vote on the new requirements this week, a move that Webb, interviewed several weeks ago, said he thought would help Tennessee become a gold standard in education.

"Now when we say a child is proficient, it will mean proficient," he said. "Before, a child could be proficient based on our standards and not be ready for college-level math."

After an initial dip in state proficiency levels, state educators and the coalition hope to see an uptick in student performance within three to five years.

Frist, chairman of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), explained it thusly: If a patient is having heart trouble but doesn't know exactly what's going on, they might not be so inclined to stop smoking or start exercising.

Literature released by the First to the Top Coalition urges parents to not get discouraged by the new standards and to ask for help if their child's scores have slipped.

"Parents are going to say, you told me my child was doing well and is proficient. Now you tell me my child is not proficient," Frist said. "The pressure will be on politicians to slide the standards back."

Already there have been some concerns among educators.

"We're not adverse to the changes," said John Aitken, superintendent of the Shelby County Schools system. "Our concern is the rapidity with which things are changing."

But Bredesen and Memphis mayor A C Wharton said it was better to get the initial shock over with now and move on to improving education.

"There are those who say we should have waited until next year or when we had more time to prepare. There's no wrong time to do the right thing," Wharton said. "A little discomfort now will make Tennessee truly competitive."

In addition to a truer assessment of students, the coalition hopes the change will ultimately benefit the state economically.

A generation ago, about a third of U.S. jobs required some education or training after high school. That figure today is 80 percent.

"If we are to be economically successful as a state, we have to have the skills to do what it takes," Bredesen said. "There are going to be very unhappy parents, superintendents, and politicians out there, but this is what we have to do."

Though not yet determined at press time, the standards will be applied to TCAP tests taken in April. School systems should get preliminary results by mid-August, with scores going out to parents in September.

"It's going to hurt," Hart said. "When the scores come home, parents are going to think we've done something to them and their child. What we've done was prior to today: We let you believe your child was high-performing."

To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff blog at


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