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TCAP: a deep dive into the history of the test that threatens to hold back so many TN third graders

Third graders work on their English language arts skills at Promising Scholars, Metro Schools' summer learning program.
Alexis Marshall
Third graders work on their English language arts skills at Promising Scholars, Metro Schools' summer learning program.

Gov. Bill Lee sits on the floor of the library at Howard Elementary School in Gallatin. He’s talking to summer school students, some of whom are likely here because they didn’t score high enough on the English language arts section of TCAP, the state’s standardized test. The governor hints at this talking to them.

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to students at Howard Elementary School.
Alexis Marshall
Gov. Bill Lee speaks to students at Howard Elementary School.

“The summer program that you’re in was created to make sure that you could read the best you could ever imagine,” Lee said.

A law took effect this summer requiring thousands of students to participate in learning interventions, or risk not going on to the fourth grade. As Tennessee families prepare to send their kids back to school, some are bracing for their second “first day” of third grade.

To better understand this test and how the stakes got so high for third graders, it’s important to know the history.

Tennessee gets grilled for low academic standards

In 2007, Tennessee received an “F” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for truth in advertising about student proficiency. At that time about 90% of kids were testing proficient in English on TCAP.

“However, according to the national assessment … they were actually about 30% or less proficient,” said Sharon Roberts, who serves as chief K-12 impact officer for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. The assessment she referenced is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Roberts was part of the push to overhaul the state’s standards after that shocking report. Education leaders wanted to challenge kids, and prepare them to compete with their peers across the country when it’s time for college and career.

“The idea was to redefine proficiency and student preparedness beyond K-12 education,” Roberts said.

Those new standards meant TCAP had to change too.

Raising the bar for state assessments

Former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen oversaw that process. Together with the testing company, experts tried to set Tennessee’s bar for proficiency similar to where it is on national assessments, like the Nation’s Report Card.

Those tests associate “proficiency” with being on track for college and career success.

“Are these students who, if they were to matriculate into post-secondary, could make a B or higher in a credit-bearing course?” McQueen said.

Raising the standards and proficiency threshold has major benefits, McQueen said.

“We want students to be able to think and problem solve very critically. And our standards really push not only the teachers to teach, but the student to think up. And when you’re teaching up and you’re thinking up, that mean students have a better readiness for what’s next.”

McQueen said Tennessee succeeded in raising the bar.

“We would be in a top echelon of the states across the country who have strong standards at this point after being decades in by far the lowest sort of subsection of states.”

The data back up that statement. According to The Nation’s Report Card, Tennessee has the most rigorous fourth grade reading proficiency standards in the country. It’s one of just a handful of states whose proficiency standards line up with the national assessment.

The vast majority of states have fourth grade reading proficiency standards below those associated with NAEP Proficient.
Courtesy National Center for Education Statistics
The vast majority of states have fourth grade reading proficiency standards below those associated with NAEP Proficient.

But when you raise the standards in the classroom and on the big end-of-year test, the scores are bound to fall. And they did, significantly.

In subsequent years, students started improving on TCAP. They increased their scores on the national assessment, too.

Still, about 60% of Tennessee’s third graders scored less than proficient in English language arts on this year’s TCAP test.

What does TCAP assess?

Critics of Tennessee’s retention policy have pointed out that the test doesn’t solely measure reading, even though that is the stated focus of the law.

It does assess students’ reading comprehension. But it also measures a host of other skills that fall under the umbrella of English language arts. That includes things like grammar, syntax and punctuation.

It’s material that can be tricky. Even adults miss some of the questions.

These are more like the building blocks of language, said Vanderbilt literacy expert Amanda Goodwin. And they may not be as intuitive as reading.

“I think another way to think about this is this sort of implicit, you know, ‘I know this,’” Goodwin said, “versus the more explicit and being able to explain why I know this and why language works in this way.”

Goodwin takes another issue with the test: the high percentage of kids that fail it. Only 40% of third graders tested proficient or above, and that’s the best they’ve performed since the test was changed back in 2017.

“I think we need to look more carefully at the tests and our bars and what’s being assessed,” Goodwin said.

Although experts helped develop TCAP, that happened long before this law went into place. And the test wasn’t designed to determine whether kids should be held back.

Reading is on a spectrum

Some Tennessee officials have insinuated that, based on the test, nearly two-thirds of the state’s third graders can’t read. But that’s an oversimplification.

Gini Pupo-Walker is the executive director of the Education Trust in Tennessee. She said in many cases, people misconstrue the state’s proficiency rate.

“The narrative attached to that … is that then, that means that they’re not reading. ‘If they’re not proficient, they’re not reading,'” Pupo-Walker said. “And I think we know now that that’s simply not the case. Our readers are readers on a continuum.”

Goodwin agrees.

“They may not know how to read as well passages about content that’s really unfamiliar to them. They may not know how to associate certain questions or how to take tests for a long time at a time. But I certainly think we have lots of other data points to show that kids know how to read in different ways.”

Advocates argue for more than one test score

For that reason, Goodwin said she’d like to see more than one test score considered.

“It would be really wonderful to think of ways to create portfolios as supplemental ways of helping to show what kids can do beyond just a single assessment,” Goodwin said.

Pupo-Walker pointed to the high-pressure TCAP testing can put on 8- and 9-year-olds.

“Do I think it’s important that we have high standards, that we’re measuring how well students are doing on the standards? I do. Do I think the child’s performance on that test on one day should be used in this way, in this high stakes way? I do not.”

The impacts on children

Pupo-Walker said she has heard many stories of students feeling “traumatized” and “fearful” of taking TCAP.

“Students who didn’t pass feeling as though they somehow were failures,” she said. “That they’re stupid, that they have now a label on them.”

Jacey Tate, 9, felt that way while attending a summer learning program. He was among the thousands of students identified for retention based on his TCAP score.

“I’m not that smart though,” Tate said. “I am but … I ain’t smart at hard things.”

Not being able to read well by third grade is associated with lower graduation rates and other negative outcomes later in life. But retention carries its own set of risks. Students who are held back sometimes see short-term academic improvements, but they are also more likely to drop out of high school.

All parties want kids to be able to read well. Advocates on both sides of this issue support the tutoring and summer school programs outlined in the policy. Disagreements arise when it comes to how the state gets more students reading on a higher level.

Instead of mandatory interventions and the threat of retention, Goodwin said she’d like to see students getting extra help before the big end-of-year exam.

“For example, when students take the test in the fall, and they show that they’re having different challenges, I would provide the supports there.”

That way, she said, they could get caught up before falling too far behind.

What’s next?

In 2024, the state will also consider another reading test in addition to TCAP for students who scored “approaching” proficiency. The law still requires those students to participate in tutoring for all of fourth grade.

That change does not take effect for this year’s rising fourth graders. The state says schools must issue final retention decisions to families no later than 10 days before the first day of school. So some students will find out they’re getting held back less than two weeks before they head back to class.

Alexis Marshall is WPLN News’s education reporter. She is a Middle Tennessee native and started listening to WPLN as a high schooler in Murfreesboro. She got her start in public radio freelance producing for NPR and reporting at WMOT, the on-campus station at MTSU. She was the reporting intern at WPLN News in the fall of 2018 and afterward an intern on NPR’s Education Desk. Alexis returned to WPLN in 2020 as a newscast producer and took over the education beat in 2022. Marshall contributes regularly to WPLN's partnership with Nashville Noticias, a Spanish language news program, and studies Arabic. When she's not reporting, you can find her cooking, crocheting or foraging for mushrooms.
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