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Test Scores and Politics

It's learning at their own pace.
It's learning at their own pace.
Emily L. Goodman

At long last, state test scores for the 2013-2014 school year have been released. Schools across the state have been put under a microscope based on a series of numbers, student performance on exams designed to test the material that they have absorbed over the course of the school year. Some schools have performed well, and for that they have been given accolades. Other schools have performed very poorly, and for that they have been condemned—but those schools on the “priority” list, or the lowest-performing five percent in the state, receive special funding and services in the hopes of helping them to improve the education of their students.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy has received no such assistance—only condemnation from the state legislators. It's not in that "bottom five percent" of schools; but it's still not high enough for their satisfaction. Test scores must come up, legislators insist, or the school will be shut down. If TNVA does not reach Level 3 performance (a substantial gain in test scores between last year and this year), then it will not be in operation for the 2015-2016 school year.

Admittedly, TNVA’s performance on state tests is only slowly improving. Student scores have improved four percent in reading/language arts, math, and social studies, and nine percent in science—and math scores are still incredibly low. On the other hand, as always, those scores take into account only a small portion of what the Tennessee Virtual Academy is actually accomplishing.

Unfortunately, it is the numbers that will ultimately matter most. When considering whether or not the school will remain open, governor Bill Haslam and the Department of Education aren’t going to be looking at the things that the Tennessee Virtual Academy has accomplished. They won’t be considering the fact that all across the state (particularly in Shelby County) there are schools with lower schools whose doors are remaining open.

They consider only the numbers. The negatives. The possibility that this new, different method of education might crowd out the old one without being an adequate replacement, when in reality, it fills entirely different needs for an entirely different group of people.

What if the state were to look at a different set of numbers entirely? What if they were to take numbers from individual children and look at them before and during their tenure at the Tennessee Virtual Academy? What if they followed a group of children from a brick and mortar education, through the virtual education process—not just over one year, or two, but over an educational career?

It’s a different way of learning. The numbers are going to reflect that. First-year test scores are lower than other scores across the Tennessee Virtual Academy; and even this year, with record low first-year enrollment due to the political difficulties early in the school year, approximately a third of TNVA’s students are new to the virtual academy.

It’s also a way of learning that works. The problem is, it doesn’t’ work immediately. It’s not a magical cure-all for whatever caused the child to need a virtual education to begin with. Sure, there are some children who will immediately excel.

There are also some children who will struggle. Who will take time to be brought up to grade level. Who will need extra help to learn what they need to learn. That’s what schools like TNVA are for: the kids who aren’t learning well in an ordinary classroom. Unfortunately, the test scores reflect that—and for the most part, the legislators who are responsible for its continuing existence are looking at the numbers the wrong way.