A recently released report from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office shows that Tennessee K-3 students are making positive, albeit slight, growth in acquiring reading skills. Those conclusions were drawn from state-mandated K-3 universal reading screeners (URS), which all school districts are required to administer as part of legislation passed in 2021 during a Special Session of the General Assembly on education.
Legislators passed the Tennessee Literacy Success Act (TLSA), with the intent to ensure that students were on track to become proficient readers by the end of grade 3. The URS requirement was embedded in the bill as a means to safeguard taxpayer investment while delivering on promises made to Tennessee students.
Experts attach significant importance to 3rd-grade reading as a predictor of future success because that is when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
A universal reading screener is a targeted standardized assessment designed to check that students are making adequate progress in reading. It is intended as a quick check-up as opposed to the more extensive and time-consuming annual TNReady test. The state’s standardized test focuses on standards, whereas the URS tends to be skills-based.
The Comptrollers office reports that according to the data provided by districts, all four grade levels measured increased their rate of skill acquisition on average by two percentage points when compared nationally to other students at their grade level.
Based on graphs included in the Comptrollers report, third-grade students saw the most movement, with students starting at 43 percent in the Fall of 2021, growing to 45 percent in the Winter, and then achieving a Spring 2022 score of 46 percent. Percentile rankings are defined in the report as follows:
Percentile rankings for screener results are based on comparisons to national results from other students who completed the same screener. A change in percentile ranking means that a student’s score increased or decreased more than other students’ scores. A percentile ranking that stays the same does not mean a student hasn’t progressed; it means the student progressed at the same rate as others. In other words, their place in the ranking line remains unchanged.
The national norms for the screeners utilized are considered to be between 40 percent and 59 percent, with the national average being 50 percent. For the Spring 2022 foundational literacy skills composite for grades, K-3, Tennessee’s was 43 percent, on the lower end of the national norms.
While the scores included in the comptroller’s report do show progress, they are only reflective of “growth” and do not reflect achievement. In other words, Tennessee may be progressing at a rate faster than 43 percent of states, but achievement levels may still be lower than other states.
Per the latest NAEP data, Tennessee ranks 36th in reading, with 12 states performing significantly higher and 33 with no significant difference. Only 6 perform significantly lower.
Furthermore, while all are “nationally normed” they are not normed to the same national “norming groups” – groups used to compare student performance with other students in their peer group. This peer group could be grade-level related or include other groupings, such as special education, disability status, English learners, and gifted students, among others. Tennessee’s reading screeners are nationally normed by grade level, but only against students nationally who have taken that particular screener.
In measuring student progress, the Comptroller’s report offers “composite scores” without describing the methodology used to arrive at those numbers. That lack of description, coupled with the disparate “norming groups,” works to raise some questions about the value of the data presented.
As observed by Mary Batiwalla, former Assistant Commissioner of Assessment and Accountability, in an email exchange with The Tennessee Star, “It is unclear to me that the methodology used for each screener’s norm group is similar enough to technically defend the calculation of a composite percentile average across all seven screeners.”
Districts and schools were first required to administer universal screeners in reading, writing, and math to students in grades K-8 grade in 2014-15 as part of the state’s adoption of the Response to Instruction and Intervention(RTI2) framework. Initially, they were given the ability to, choose their preferred screener, provided it met the required provisions, set the dates of their screener administration, and set the scores that would trigger reading interventions.
As a result of TSLA, the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) now sets both the dates of administration and the scores that trigger reading interventions. While districts are still allowed to choose their own screener, that selection must come from the list of seven State Board of Education-approved screeners and districts must report data within two weeks of administration. Sharing of data between districts and the state was not a prior requirement.
According to TLSA, the state Department of Education was charged with contracting with a vendor to create a screener to be offered free of charge to local school districts. In response they offered a sole-source contract, to NCS Pearson, Inc., to use its AimswebPlus Reading Screener as the Tennessee Universal Reading Screener (TURS). The agreement came with a cost of $3.5 million over three years, drawn from federal funds. Commissioner Schwinn defended the agreement at the time by claiming that “none of the other vendors met the state’s minimum requirements.”
The Comptroller’s report states that currently, 48 percent of Tennessee school districts have chosen to use the TURS, with that number expected to grow to 53 percent next year. Those districts that choose to utilize one of the other six screeners are responsible for any cost associated with that screener’s usage.
In 2022, the general assembly passed legislation requiring that the comptroller’s office annually review the implementation of the Literary Support Act (LSA) and report its findings to the chairs of the Senate and House education committees and the State Board of Education (SBE) by November 1 of each year. The Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) has been designated by the comptroller to complete this annual review. It should be noted that the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office typically deals with quantitative analysis as opposed to qualitative.
This report is the first such review of what is destined to be an annual event.
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TC Weber is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. He also writes the blog Dad Gone Wild. Follow TC on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected] He’s the proud parent of two public school children and the spouse of a public school teacher.