For over two decades education reformers have been trying to convince parents, taxpayers and voters that Tennessee public schools are doing a horrible job. They have done this through the manipulation of test result data gathered from state- and federally-mandated standardized tests.

Recently, the state of Tennessee announced that 36.4% of Tennessee’s public school students are reading on grade level, based on the results of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program state-level results. Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn would like Tennesseans to believe that this means that the other 63.6% of Tennessee students cannot read.

This is just not true.

Tennessee’s standards-based grading system was originally adopted as part of Tennessee’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards. The system includes four levels of performance: the highest level is “exceeded,” the second highest level is “met,” the third is “approaching,” and the lowest level is “below.”

This year, the state reported that 23% of all Tennessee students scored in the “below” performance level on spring TCAP exams. It’s obviously imperative that we dramatically decrease the percentage of students reading below grade level. However, reading scores in Tennessee were steadily improving in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and, even with the disruption of the pandemic, have increased from 18% in 2018. It is also important to note that the number of students reading below grade level falls dramatically by the time students get to high school. In 2021, only 10% of Tennessee high school students were reading below grade level.

In 2021, only 10% of Tennessee high school students were reading below grade level.

The largest category, ‘approaching,’ has been left out

The state arrives at its assessment that 36.4% of students are reading on grade level by including only the top two performance levels in its announcement and discussion of TCAP scores.

The commissioner and others interested in privatizing Tennessee’s K12 education system purposefully leave out the largest category of students in their test results: students in the “approaching” category. This year 41% of Tennessee students scored in the approaching category for reading. Not only are students in the approaching category able to read, but they are also not reading below grade level. These are likely B- and C-level students.

The state does not release the number or letter grades associated with each of the four TCAP performance levels. On other tests and student report cards in Tennessee, numbers and letter grades are pretty straightforward: 90-100 is an A, 89-89 is a B, 70-79 is a C, 60-69 is a D and anything below a 60 is an F.

TCAP vagueness makes test results easy to manipulate

But TCAP has only four vague performance levels. This vagueness makes TCAP test results easy to manipulate.

So why do Lee and Schwinn want parents, taxpayers and legislators to think that two-thirds of Tennessee public school students can’t read? Why do they want you to think that your kids’ and grandkids’ teachers are not doing a good job teaching them to read when, in fact, almost 90% of Tennessee students are reading on grade level by the time they graduate?

It’s because they want to create a fake crisis to make it easier to continue the privatization of public schools through private school vouchers and privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools.

Just recently, it was revealed that Lee is still working with controversial Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn to bring 100 of Hillsdale’s radical charter schools to replace Tennessee’s traditional public schools, despite Arnn’s demeaning comments about Tennessee’s teachers. We’re concerned the governor will soon use his misleading claims that two-thirds of Tennessee students can’t read as an excuse to propose expanding his Education Savings Account/voucher program statewide.

The governor, the commissioner and Tennessee lawmakers need to know that you are paying attention to their deceptive reports on student achievement. They need to know that we know that it is a manufactured myth that two-thirds of Tennessee students can’t read.

Kids can read.

Email and call Lee and Schwinn to let them know that Tennessee’s public school teachers are doing a great job. Email and call your state legislators and let them know that student achievement is much better than what the governor and the commissioner are reporting. Ask them to oppose any further attempts to privatize Tennessee’s schools.

Contact Information for Tennessee House and Senate Education Committee members can be found here:

Contact information for all Tennessee legislators and a “find my legislator” tool can be found here:

Tennessee Public Education Coalition

Anderson County:

Dave Campbell

Dewayne Emert

Susan Fowler

Lori C. Houck

Marsha Livingston

Liz McGeachy

Patsye Thurmon

Bradley County:

Dan Lawson

Cheatham County:

Elena Roser

Davidson County:

Amy Flatt

Amy Frogge

Karen McIntyre

Sibyl Reagan

Jill Speering

Nancy Stetten

Knox County:

Candace Bannister

Rev. Dr. Gordon Gibson

Dave Gorman

Bob Kronick

Lance McCold

Jane Skinner

Doug Veum

Shelby County:

Barbara Buchanan

Jerri Green

Roberta Pearl

Peg Watkins

Sullivan County:

Jane Boyd

Joy Branham

Denny (“Trey”) Darnell

LeAnna Hamer

Charlotte Hoover

Susan Lodal

Juanita Mitchell

Sumner County:

Vanessa Sheehan

Washington County:

A.H. Trask 

Williamson County:

Ellen Finney

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