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High Stakes Tests Begin For Memphis Students And Teachers

4-23-12 Kriner Cash.jpg
Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash


Students across the state will sit down and take a set of state tests called the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), starting this week, and for the first time their scores on those tests will factor into their teachers’ evaluations and their own second semester grades. 

“Before, you know, we had a lot of children failing [the state test], because we have schools struggling, but then all of the observations and evaluations of teachers were excellent. So you had children failing, every teacher getting excellent,” said Superintendent of the Memphis City Schools Kriner Cash. “Now, under this new first year system you see more of a normal distribution.”

Under the new teacher evaluation 40 percent of a Memphis teacher’s score is based on observation of their planning and teaching and another 35 percent of their score is derived from how students do on the state test. Teachers aren’t scored on how well students do on the test overall. Instead, teachers are scored on how much students improve. This score is called a teacher’s “value-added” data, and aims to measure how much students learn over time.

“Remember what our main barometer is—one year of growth for one year of teaching and instruction. That’s what we mean by all of this,” Cash said.

There are standout educators under the new evaluation system—teachers who both the observation of their classroom practice and their students’ test scores put them well above the average. There are also teachers whose observations and student test scores place them well below the average. But both these groups are relatively small. There is a much larger middle range. Preliminary data suggests that between the teacher whose observation of their classroom practice puts them in the twenty-fifth percentile and the teacher whose observation of their practice puts them in the seventy-fifth percentile, there isn’t that much difference in the way their students score on the state tests. A presentation by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped develop the new teacher evaluation in Memphis, to the Transition Planning Commission Educational Services Committee referred to this wide middle range of teachers as the “messy” middle.

“Education is messy,” Cash said. “But we are getting it more perfected than it has ever been. And I think we have a very, very good process and good set of tools to distinguish what I really am after, which is my really, really good teachers—my teacher that I want my kid being taught by—and those teachers that I want to help and grow, because I think they can, they just need more knowledge and they need more practice and they need more feedback that helps them to grow.” 

Cash says he doesn’t anticipate firing the bottom quartile of teachers. “I don’t think it is going to be 25 percent. I think it is going to be more like eight to 10 percent, you see, that need to consider something different, and need to be helped gracefully to choose another profession—after maybe two years of feedback,” Cash said.

Per state law, the way students score on the state test will also factor into their second semester grades. In Memphis, the state test will make up 15 percent of the second semester grade for 3rd–8th graders. For high school students the state test will determine 25 percent of their second semester grade for every tested subject.

“There has never been higher stakes for them, as students, and there has never been high stakes for the staff,” Cash said.

I love living in Memphis, but I'm not from the city. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent many hours at a highly tender age listening to NPR as my parents crisscrossed that city in their car, running errands. I don't amuse myself by musing about the purity of destiny, but I have seriously wondered how different my life would be if my parents preferred classic rock instead of Car Talk.