Student assessments like TNReady are essential

This op-ed first appeared in The Ten­nessean on Sun­day, Sep­tem­ber 30, 2018. The op-ed is by Ten­nessee Teacher of Year (2016–17) and Ten­nessee Edu­ca­tion­al Equi­ty Coali­tion Steer­ing Com­mit­tee Mem­ber, Derek Voiles. 

Stu­dent assess­ments are not per­fect. Teach­ers know. Dis­tricts know. The state knows.

This is why I’ve been part of a recent statewide lis­ten­ing tour in Ten­nessee with Gov­er­nor Haslam that has focused on ways to improve our assess­ments, and I’ve heard feed­back from teach­ers, admin­is­tra­tors, and test­ing coor­di­na­tors across the state.

What I have heard is that no sin­gle assess­ment is per­fect, but that a statewide assess­ment such as TNReady is crit­i­cal to mak­ing sure that we provide every stu­dent with a world-class edu­ca­tion.

While we have work to do, we can­not lose sight of the need to have a high-qual­i­ty assess­ment aligned to our state’s aca­d­e­mic expec­ta­tions that gives us a true and fair pic­ture of where our stu­dents are and where they need to go.

With­out high stan­dards and a state test that looks for stu­dents’ under­stand­ing of those, the needs of all stu­dents can more eas­i­ly go unno­ticed, and our col­lec­tive invest­ment in K-12 edu­ca­tion can go unchecked.

Over the last decade, Ten­nessee Gov­er­nors Bre­desen and Haslam have led a bipar­ti­san and nation­al­ly acclaimed effort to improve edu­ca­tion­al out­comes for our stu­dents.

In 2015, Tennessee’s state gov­ern­ment, busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty, and cit­i­zen-dri­ven orga­ni­za­tions devel­oped an over­ar­ch­ing vision for edu­ca­tion that includ­ed the adop­tion of more rig­or­ous aca­d­e­mic stan­dards and an annu­al assess­ment based on those stan­dards that pro­vides edu­ca­tors like me, as well as fam­i­lies, with a more accu­rate mea­sure of stu­dent pro­gress.

The­se changes are cen­tered on improv­ing equi­ty for Lati­no and African Amer­i­can stu­dents, among oth­ers, and improv­ing low-achiev­ing schools, and they are ground­ed in the belief that every stu­dent in Ten­nessee should have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to suc­ceed.

The tran­si­tion to Tennessee’s Aca­d­e­mic Stan­dards has tru­ly trans­formed my teach­ing and has led to sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments in my stu­dents’ learn­ing.

As an Eng­lish teacher, this tran­si­tion led me to eval­u­ate my pre­vi­ous instruc­tion­al prac­tices and exam­ine cur­rent strate­gies through a new lens.

In my class­room, I have changed from pro­gress­ing through a check­list of skills to a class­room cul­ture of stu­dents grap­pling with com­plex texts, root­ing respons­es in tex­tu­al evi­dence, and reg­u­lar­ly writ­ing.

Stu­dents now lead and par­tic­i­pate in high­er-lev­el think­ing and class­room dis­cus­sion, as well as more sophis­ti­cat­ed stu­dent-to-stu­dent dis­course both in and out­side the class­room. The work is hard­er, but my stu­dents are hap­pier and bet­ter prepared—and at the end of the day, I am more ful­filled.

In addi­tion to my own class­room expe­ri­ence, there is evi­dence already that our efforts are work­ing. The grad­u­a­tion rate con­tin­ues to increase. ACT scores are on the rise in our state.

The oppor­tu­ni­ties that today’s Ten­nessee grad­u­ates are able to access are unprece­dent­ed. But in turn we must con­tin­ue to build on our pro­gress so that every stu­dent in Tennessee—irrespective of their race, gen­der, or eco­nom­ic background—is pre­pared for suc­cess in edu­ca­tion beyond high school, in their career and in life.

The only way to know if we are suc­ceed­ing at mov­ing all kids in the right direc­tion is to imple­ment a high-qual­i­ty assess­ment that looks for how well stu­dents are learn­ing our aca­d­e­mic stan­dards – which is the goal of TNReady.

We need every Ten­nessee stu­dent to be equipped with crit­i­cal think­ing abil­i­ties, deep con­tent knowl­edge, and skills that can trans­late into a well-pay­ing job. We must have a test that allows us to be truth­ful with our­selves about the job we are doing to meet those goals and the growth of our stu­dents.

Ensur­ing that we have such a test requires teacher engage­ment at every step in the process and an expert, reli­able com­pa­ny that keeps Ten­nessee stu­dents at the cen­ter. It’s hard work. It will con­tin­ue to be hard work. But if any­body can do it, I believe Ten­nessee can.

Derek Voiles, Ed.D., is a lan­guage arts and Eng­lish as a Sec­ond Lan­guage teacher at Lin­coln Heights Mid­dle School in Ham­blen Coun­ty. He is the 2017 Ten­nessee teacher of the year. 

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