02/05/2014 06:42 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Some Hard Truths About Education (and NAEP) in Tennessee

A two-year bump in NAEP scores in Tennessee has prompted vocal assertions of their implications from leaders at the state and even the federal level. A few of these assertions are reasonable, many are exaggerated, and some are downright false. Putting these claims in context -- and looking at the current state of education in Tennessee -- could help set the state legislature on the right track as it begins its 2014 session.

It's certainly reasonable to celebrate an increase in Tennessee's NAEP scores between 2011 and 2013, after several years of stagnation. It's also reasonable to suggest that a meaningful increase in standards for all the state's students -- standards that ensure a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum that encourages critical thinking, delivered by qualified teachers who are experts in their subject areas -- could turn that two-year bump into a longer-term trend.

Exaggeration about NAEP scores, however, has largely trumped reason. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has claimed that the bump is the result of newfound "honesty" with teachers about achievement gaps, and of their evaluation based on student test scores under the federal Race to the Top initiative. If that were the case, we should see similar increases across other states implementing similar policies under RTTT. We do not. Rather, we see a random assortment of increases -- in Tennessee and Washington, DC, but also in Iowa and Washington, which did not implement the same reforms -- and unimpressive results in states like Colorado and Louisiana, both of which employ test-based evaluation systems.

And if Race to the Top were "succeeding," we should see achievement gaps shrink -- after all, its reforms target disadvantaged students in particular. What we saw in Tennessee was the opposite -- achievement gaps grew between students who do and do not qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch, a sizeable group in the state. Poor students fell further behind their more advantaged peers in both reading and math in 4th grade and in 8th grade math these past two years. Both fourth grade gaps widened by six points. In other words, if RTTT has had an impact on NAEP scores, it seems to be further boosting the existing advantage of white and higher-income students, not the disadvantaged ones it purports to help.

Most critically, claims that RTTT initiatives substantially improve education defy decades of hard evidence. James Coleman was the first to discover, in 1966, that poverty and segregation, not schools (or teachers), are the primary drivers of achievement gaps. Since then, scholars have unpacked those "opportunity gaps," revealing gaps in learning as big as one-to-two years before children even enter kindergarten. They have documented the extra weeks of school that low-income children miss due to lack of proper health care and those same students' inability to focus in class due to lack of sufficient nutritious meals. In recent decades, an entire body of research has emerged around "summer learning loss." Specifically, roughly equal gains achieved by high- and low-income children from September to June diverge wildly during the summer months, when well-off students enjoy enriching music, arts, camping, organized sports, and travel, while many of their peers spend hours in front of the television or hanging around outside.

Schools neither cause nor control these huge disparities, but policies under RTTT hold schools entirely responsible -- by closing "under-performing" schools serving low-income, minority students, and labeling their teachers "ineffective" without providing the resources to address opportunity gaps.

Kevin Huffman, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, would have us believe that the same policy changes that have killed morale among teachers, principals, and superintendents and sparked an uprising among parents are the key to school improvement. He asserts that relegating the state's poorest students to weeks of testing and of preparation for testing will help them catch up to their wealthy counterparts. He insists that the value-added system of teacher evaluation, decried among serious scholars as too unreliable as the basis for high-stakes decisions, should be further expanded to judge principals, incorporated into students' end-of-year test scores, and used to revoke the credentials of existing teachers.

Huffman also ignores slow-but-steady NAEP gains over the past two decades in neighboring Kentucky, a state that refuses to use test scores to evaluate teachers, has no charter schools, and invests more than Tennessee in its teachers and its pre-kindergarten programs. Kentucky's gains accrue to students who need them most -- its poor students post smaller gaps than Tennessee's in three of four categories.

A week ago, the exaggerated version, advanced at an invitation-only SCORE event, bumped up against the reasonable -- presented at the launch of the newly-formed Tennesseeans Reclaiming Educational Excellence. As legislators return to work, let's hope that reality trumps rhetoric before more damage is done in Tennessee.