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Test Scores Don't Tell the Whole Story

Sitting in front of the computer is an ideal way to learn for many students.
Sitting in front of the computer is an ideal way to learn for many students.
Emily L. Goodman

For the past several years, the Tennessee Virtual Academy has been closely scrutinized by politicians who are concerned with the students’ performance on standardized tests. While it is true that test scores have been lower than the ideal since the school’s inception, it is also true that the scores are improving with each year that passes, and that students who have been with the school for longer than a year tend to have better overall test scores.

However, test scores are an inexact measurement of what the Tennessee Virtual Academy is actually accomplishing—especially the way they’re being used.

These test scores do not display where a student was academically before entering the Tennessee Virtual Academy. So many students were behind academically before entering the program. In many cases, they were placed in the program by their parents because of poor academic progress. This could be because of a poor school system, a poorly performing school, or a student who, for whatever reason, was not functioning well at a particular school.

Students who are bullied do not have the opportunity to learn the same way students who are popular and surrounded by friends do. They dread school attendance, dread the academic process, dread group work more than anything else in the world. For them, school is hard, not because of their intelligence or academic capability, but because they are being picked on. As a result, much of their learning time is taken up by the effort to simply get through the day. It takes time to change these habits and pathways, and time to bring a student back up to speed.

Likewise, a student who has previously been unable to learn effectively in a brick and mortar setting will take time to be brought back up to speed in a virtual classroom. The increased one-on-one time with their teacher, increased attention from a parent, and greater available curriculum all have great impact on a student’s ability to learn, but they are not going to go overnight from a low-performing student to a high-performing one. It is a process, and one that takes time to master.

These test scores also do not take into account the number of students who have chosen to enter the school midway through the year, and who have not had adequate time to adjust to a new educational method and start learning. These students haven’t had as much time in the school, but are still expected to perform at the same level as their peers—regardless of when they actually started.

TNVA students are more likely to be disadvantaged in some way. Parents do not typically remove their children from the public school system without a reason, nor do they arbitrarily decide that it would be fun to keep their kids at home and have them learn online for a year. Typically, parents seek out resources like the ones available through TNVA when there is a problem.

They have a child who is sick, and who can’t attend classes at their brick and mortar school regularly. These are students who might otherwise be placed on homebound education, with a teacher who is ill suited for their educational needs, or students who would miss day after day of school in their regular educational setting.

They have a child who is failing to learn in a regular classroom—a child whose teachers are overlooking him time and time again because they don’t want to deal with the extra effort involved in sitting down one-on-one with him and helping him really learn.

They have a child who is being bullied.

They have a child who is so far ahead of the class, academically speaking, that they’re bored out of their minds.

They have a child who is in trouble day after day after day, in the principal’s office more often than not, not always through any fault of their own.

These are students who are not functioning well in a regular educational setting. They need a new option—an option like the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which fulfills their right to a free and appropriate public education without forcing them to deal with the kinds of issues that they were facing in their brick and mortar schools.

But these are students who might not perform as well on these tests, for whatever reason. They are students with severe behavior problems. Students with severe ADD or ADHD, who are easily distracted during their tests. Students who have other issues.

There is a greater concentration of these students in TNVA than in any other school for the simple reason that these are the students who need it. These are the students whose parents had to seek out other options. These are the students who need that different setting in which to learn.

They aren’t students who typically perform as well on standardized tests.

No studies have been done on traditional homeschooling students versus virtual students. A virtual education straddles the line between traditional homeschooling and a brick and mortar public education. For many parents, it’s an “almost-homeschooling” option, or a “better than homeschooling” option. They choose the Tennessee Virtual Academy, and other schools like it, because they’re hoping that they will be able to give their child the advantages of homeschooling without encountering as many of the disadvantages.

Who knows how these students would be performing if they were traditionally homeschooled? If the parents aren’t “getting it right” when they are simply learning coaches, how would they be doing if they were the teachers?

And how many of these families have few or no other options? How many would rather traditionally homeschool than place their students back in a brick and mortar school—but would not benefit from having that forced on them?

Unfortunately, the data for these questions simply isn’t available—but it is a point that lawmakers would do well to keep in mind all the same.

TNVA is still a new school. It takes time to get all the kinks worked out—time that the school hasn’t been given. No one has made a blueprint to show teachers and administrators how they’re supposed to proceed from here. The school is making history as it provides an educational opportunity for Tennessee children that has never been available before.

There is nothing else like K12 currently available. No other method on the market that allows for the same standard of education. No other “homeschooling” curriculum that allows students to be so actively involved with certified teachers.

It’s new. It’s different. And it’s a learning process.

Do test scores need to come up? Sure. There are schools, even districts, all across the state where that is the case. The problem is, those scores don’t tell the whole story--and it's Tennessee students and teachers who are going to take the fall for an imperfect system and a biased government.

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