Revised January 24, 2020
Prior to this week, the last time a Tennessee governor brought the General Assembly into Special Session to pass education legislation was January 2010, and it was all about getting more federal money to pay for the schools that state politicians are unwilling to support.
Responding to call by Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), the TN legislature quickly met in January 2010 and passed into state law the necessary policies that would make the state a shoo-in for a half-billion dollar federal grant to be provided by Obama's Race to to the Top (RttT). A core component of Tennessee's half-baked program was to use the money for a test score based teacher evaluation scheme, which added to Tennessee's reputation as an educational laughingstock.
Just this week, Governor Bill Lee (R), has ridden herd over another special session on education, this one ostensibly to address 1) what educational snake oil salesmen call the Covid-related "learning loss," and 2) the reading proficiency emergency at Tennessee's elementary schools.
Since "learning loss" scam is covered in this recent post, let me focus for a moment on Bill Lee's other manufactured crisis, reading literacy.
Less than two years ago, Lee's Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn was providing this spin on recent NAEP results for Chalkbeat:
Tennessee jumped from 34th to 25th in fourth-grade math and moved up three spots to 31st in fourth-grade reading, according to calculations provided by the state education department. For eighth-graders, Tennessee now ranks 30th in both reading and math, up from 38th and 35th, respectively.
Legislation introduced this week by Lee's team adopts an entirely different spin on reading proficiency by TN students:
(3) In 2019, Tennessee's third grade English language arts proficiency rate was thirty-six and nine-tenths percent (36.9%);
(4) In 2019, Tennessee's eighth grade English language arts proficiency rate was twenty-seven and one-tenth percent (27.1%); and
(5) In 2019, Tennessee ranked thirty-first in the nation in fourth grade reading proficiency and thirtieth in eighth grade reading proficiency.
A couple of things are notable about these claims. First, there are no third grade proficiency rates provided by NAEP. Grade 4 rates, check. Grade 8 rates, check. No grade 3.
Second, the mendacious and misleading NAEP proficiency rates cited by Lee's folks are simply wrong: 4th grade proficiency in 2019, according to NAEP, was 35%, and 8th grade proficiency was 32%.
The reason that Lee's henchmen want to mislead the public with manufactured scores for 3rd graders is explained here by Amy Frogge:
. . . here’s the biggest concern about the “learning loss” bill: It will require districts to hold back third graders who are not deemed “proficient” in standardized testing. (Proficiency rates can be manipulated by the state through cut scores.) If you google the term “Mississippi miracle,” you will find that Mississippi used this very same trick to create the appearance of a sudden increase on NAEP test scores. Holding back low-performing third graders creates the illusion of huge one-time testing gains, and implementation of the bill would take place just in time for the 2023 NAEP tests. This is not about best serving the children of Tennessee; it’s about gaming the system. Furthermore, the costs for holding back large numbers of third graders, as mandated by this bill, would be astronomical.
It's not as if we don't know the harmful effects of grade retention on children. We do. Even so, Lee up for, um, a presidential bid? in 2024, and he has consciously decided to sacrifice the welfare of Tennessee's poorest children, who inevitably will comprise the vast majority of 3rd grade failures, for the PR boost that he hopes voters will attribute to his miraculous education interventions, just passed.