By Jeff Keeling
When it comes to Tennessee’s academic standards for public schools, Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Instruction and Communication Dr. Debra Bentley is ready to have a conversation about their value with anyone, anytime. Bentley, who belongs to a standards review task force Gov. Bill Haslam appointed last fall, would simply prefer any such conversation center around specific elements of Common Core – or what is now being referred to as the Tennessee State Standards.
Those standards, Bentley believes, helped Tennessee become the country’s fastest-improving state in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, which bills itself as “the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.”
“We didn’t get there by just flying by the seat of our pants,” Bentley says of the NAEP scores. “It was very methodical. The work we’ve done with the more complex curriculum, with standards, you’ve got to have a strong teacher implementing those standards in the classroom. But I think the fact that Tennessee was the fastest-improving state on the national report card says we’re on the right track.”
With some state legislators considering action that could radically change or abandon the standards, which began to be implemented three years ago, Bentley says she hopes the task force be allowed to do its work. A group of several dozen K-12 and college educators that also includes Johnson City math teacher and academic coach Sherry Cockerham is reviewing the standards.
Bentley believes some changes will be made through the process. With teachers who have been teaching the standards on the committee, “they can step back with their expertise and their experience of being in that classroom to say, ‘this standard will better fit here.’”
Bentley’s group is reviewing English and language arts standards for kindergarten through fifth grade, while Cockerham’s group is looking at math standards for grades 6-8. The task force also will incorporate findings from public comments – Bentley says roughly 80,000 have come in already – that can be made through a state website, apps.tn.gov/tcas.
The result, she says, should be some evidence-based revisions to standards that, overall, she believes have put Tennessee on the path toward a more successful future.
“These standards were adopted by Tennessee to say, ‘we want more students college and career ready,’” Bentley says. “Regarding literacy, that means being able to read at a high level of complex texts, and reading in different genres of texts, both fictional and informational.”
Several years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the state out for what it considered inadequate standards. Based on those standards, the state claimed to be doing well, but the standards didn’t stack up well nationwide. Bentley also says Tennessee’s track record of high numbers of entering college freshmen needing developmental courses signaled a problem.
“When we backed up and looked, we had to ask, ‘have we really challenged our students to read, and learn to read, at a deeper meaningful level? Are we putting things in front of students that have relevance to their life post- middle and high school?’”
The answer turned out to be, not to a sufficient degree, Bentley says. Tennessee eventually adopted Common Core during its last standards update, which happens every six years. While the implementation has come in fits and starts, and the state has yet to settle on exactly what type of testing to use in measuring student achievement, she says teachers and students are adapting.
“I find that our students are reading more complex texts, which is a college and career tool. Our students are looking at informational texts at a higher level than they are looking at fictional texts.”
“We’re saying to elementary children even, it’s not just about reading Clifford the Big Red Dog or Dr. Seuss. It’s about reading books on how to build a kite, how to build a canoe. Reading about Martha Washington. We’re talking about informational texts, and we’re talking about a balance of those.”
Tennesseans who are willing to review the standards online can comment, but any proposed changes must be specific and relate to the standards. On the website, Bentley says, a standard comes up, and, “if you like it, you can check it. If you think it should be moved to another grade level, you can identify that. If you think it needs to be removed, you can check that, but you have to give a reason.”
Bentley believes Haslam made the right call by setting up the review committee, and says, “everything is on the table.” She expects significant revisions, but doesn’t look for a repeal by the legislature after the progress that has been made. And as time passes under the new standards, Bentley is hopeful progress will continue. She points to Kentucky, where Common Core has been in place longer than it has in Tennessee, as an example.
“They’ve shown that their highest poverty schools are making tremendous gains with these new standards. Tennessee students could do the same. We have some states out there that are showing us how to get this done.”