Tennessee Schools are Improving, Not Failing

December 22, 2010

The 2009-2010 school year introduced a world of change in how Tennessee gauges the performance of our school systems, educators, and students. As a result of these changes, there will be numerous headlines in newspapers over the next several days that will indicate that our schools are failing our students. However, a quick glance at the facts paints a much different, more optimistic picture.

Prior to the changes, Tennessee faced two problems: the content of our statewide tests and the expectations of our students. Tennessee students were graduating from high school and entering college, career training, or the workforce. However, many of our graduates were not prepared for any of these difficult endeavors. After consultation with professors, industry leaders, and technical professionals, Tennessee realized that regardless of a student's post-graduation plans, the same skills were needed in order to be competitive in today's world. As a result, this year Tennessee increased the rigor of its curricula and assessments. All of the students in Tennessee will now earn a high school diploma that reflects both their hard work as well as their readiness to enter the world.

In addition to the content, Tennessee had to address expectations. In 2009, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a report which examined the assessments and performance of each state's public educational system. This report was very revealing as to Tennessee's inadequacies. Our great state was annually reporting a proficiency rate of 80% - 90% for 3rd - 8th graders in reading/language arts and math. When this report looked at the performance of our students on a national standard, though, only 20% - 30% of students were "proficient." This discrepancy had to be addressed.
Prior to this year, Tennessee defined a proficient student as one who was minimally prepared for the next level of study. With the changes, a proficient student is now one who demonstrates mastery in academic performance, thinking abilities, and application of understandings that reflect the knowledge and skills specified by the grade/course level content standards. This new definition is a drastic change in the expectations of students and recognition that students were receiving false senses of accomplishment with the tag "proficient."

With the new, more rigorous assessments and with the mark of proficiency moving from minimal to mastery, we are going to initially see lower results than in years past. However, our students are improving and performing, and as parents, educators, and communities, we must be steadfast and supportive. We must insist that the new standards remain while ensuring the resources needed are available. No one is denying that we are expecting much more from everyone involved. These increased expectations, though, will lead to economic development and jobs for our communities and an overall better quality of life for our students.

Imagine there was an archer who routinely hit the bull's eye, and everyone around him was proud. One day, the archer was told to take 10 steps back and aim at a much smaller target. Everyone questioned the changes and the archer had difficulty with the transition. Ultimately, though, with the diligent efforts of the archer and those around him, he greatly improved his skill and once again hit that bull's eye.

Our target in Tennessee has definitely moved, but our archers will once again hit that bull's eye.

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