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.