The work to improve Metro Nashville Public Schools is far from over | Opinion

Shortly after the start of the school year, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) threw a party at Central Office. It was a big one with everything you’d expect at a part y— balloons, food, dancing. Even the mayor was there.

The director of schools stood in front of a banner celebrating MNPS as a “level five district,” which was referencing the recent release of Nashville’s score on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) from the 2021-22 school year. TVAAS measures academic growth of students from year to year.

When students take annual state assessments, like TNReady or end-of-course exams, the state compiles the achievement results showing how many of students are on grade level and how many are not. Growth scores (TVAAS scores) are different from achievement. TVAAS measures how much students improve, regardless if they’re on grade level or not.

Fifth Grade Math Teacher Edwin Wade Arnold helps a student on the first day back to in-person learning at DuPont Taylor Middle School on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.
Fifth Grade Math Teacher Edwin Wade Arnold helps a student on the first day back to in-person learning at DuPont Taylor Middle School on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

MNPS threw a party, because for the first time in five years the district’s TVAAS score was a five — which is the highest score possible on a scale of one to five, where one indicates less academic growth than expected and five indicates more growth than expected.

Being recognized as a level five district for growth is a milestone worth celebrating. But now that we’ve taken a moment to be proud of our progress, let’s not forget that the work is far from done.

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Accelerated academic growth is exactly what we want to see, but I think we can all agree that too few students are achieving on grade level in Nashville.

Behind every score is a student

Let’s be honest, no one likes standardized testing. The qualities and value of a person measure well beyond a single test, but at the same time, TNReady results allow us to hold our schools accountable.

Before testing, many students were left to struggle in life without access to an equal education− namely students of color and students from low-income families.

Too many families are left in the dark about how their children are performing on nationally-normed tests, which is the best way to know how they are doing academically compared to their similar-age peers. Instead, parents receive report cards with grades that often don’t connect with a child’s progress toward meeting the state’s academic standards.

TNReady scores matter because behind every score is a student who will one day apply for college or a job. Their ability to become a financially stable, productive adult will largely depend on whether their education has prepared them to succeed in that next step in life.

Nashville is attracting thousands of high-paying jobs from large companies like Amazon and Oracle. Our city should be preparing our local students to be competitive for those jobs, but the pandemic has made this even harder.

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Pandemic widened achievement gaps, and they’re not closing

The pandemic made learning difficult for all students. So it was no surprise when we saw test scores plunge statewide in 2021, as one Tennessean headline put it. Testing was canceled in the spring of 2020, making last year the first chance to measure the pandemic’s impact on students.

It was also not surprising that the academic achievement of students who have been historically underserved −students of color and students from low-income families− by our public school system declined the most.

On top of navigating school closures and virtual learning, these students and their families were more likely to suffer from the socio-economic disparities that the pandemic further exacerbated. Imagine how hard it is to learn from virtual instruction if your family is struggling with basic needs like housing or food.

Achievement gaps for students of color and economically disadvantaged students is a pervasive problem in public school education, long predating the pandemic. Their white, middle class peers are far more likely to achieve on grade level in school.

These gaps widened during the pandemic, and we’re not making any progress to close them. For example, the 2022 TNReady scores that came out this summer show that nearly half of White students in grades three to eight are reading on grade level, but fewer than one in five Black and Hispanic students and only one in seven of economically disadvantaged students are reading on grade level.

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We need a rallying cry and clear, measurable goals

Nashville students made significant academic gains during the 2021-22 school year, which is why MNPS achieved that level five TVAAS score. But we cannot ignore the fact that groups of students who have historically been behind their peers are more behind than ever.

The work of our educators has never been harder. We need our district leaders to articulate a concrete plan for helping our teachers move students forward who are struggling the most. We need a rallying cry for parents, community members, business owners, the faith community and nonprofits to all plug in and support individual students and schools.

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The district has multiple promising initiatives in the works, including their Equity Roadmap and a volunteer-based tutoring program. Now we need the district to set clear, measurable goals and explain what it’s going to take for us to meet those goals.

The school district threw a pretty good party in August. When we can confidently say that all of our students are getting an equitable opportunity to succeed in life, it will be worth a city-wide celebration.

We can get there, if we all focus on it.

Tanaka Vercher is the executive director of Opportunity Nashville, an advocacy organization focused on improving educational equity in Nashville.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: There's still work to be done in order to improve Nashville schools