A Sustainable Approach to High School Accountability in Tennessee

Building effective school accountability systems that don’t take away from teaching and learning is a challenge in every state — and in recent years, it’s been a particularly sticky issue in Tennessee. 

Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education has required each state to develop and administer accountability systems to track public school performance. In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced universal accountability measures with a requirement that each state develop its own accountability system and use standardized assessments to track and support student outcomes.

To meet these requirements and drive school improvement across the state, the Tennessee legislature updated its federal school accountability system. The state also passed a law in 2016 mandating that each school receive an annual grade of A-F. However, significant challenges, including testing issues, the COVID-19 pandemic, and methodology changes, delayed the system’s rollout until the 2022-2023 school year. 

For school leaders and educators, ongoing confusion about the processes and the standardized assessments central to school grades have made it difficult to prepare students to succeed. That means Tennessee districts need comprehensive support and solutions to help them navigate the school grade system and improve test scores — without sacrificing essential instructional time.

Required Assessments in Tennessee

The Tennessee Department of Education has administered standardized assessments yearly since 1988 through the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). The TCAP program, which measures progress toward Tennessee Academic Standards, includes annual assessments for grades 3-8 and end-of-course (EOC) exams administered at the end of certain high school classes.

TCAP end-of-course assessments include:

  • English I
  • English II
  • Algebra I/Integrated Math I*
  • Geometry/Integrated Math II*
  • Algebra II/Integrated Math III*
  • Biology
  • U.S. History

*These pairs of courses are seen as equivalent by the state and cover the same academic standards.

Each EOC is tied to a course
required for graduation. According to state law, EOC scores must make up at least 15% of a student’s grade in the relevant course; however, students do not need to achieve a specific score on the EOC exam to graduate as long as they pass the course. 

Based on a student’s raw score, they are assigned one of four performance levels:

  • Level 1 (below): Student has minimal understanding of grade-level knowledge and skills.  
  • Level 2 (approaching): Student has partial understanding of grade-level knowledge and skills.
  • Level 3 (on-track): Student has a thorough knowledge of and can apply grade-level knowledge and skills.
  • Level 4 (mastered): Student has an expert understanding of and ability to apply grade-level knowledge and skills.

In addition to raw scores and performance levels, student score reports list the specific skills where students are on track and where they need additional support — for example, graphing equations — and offer suggestions for steps to achieve a higher score. The reports also place student scores in context by showing how the student’s score compares to their peers’ scores at the school, district, and state levels.

In addition to the TCAP EOC exams, students are required to take the SAT or ACT in Grade 11 to earn a Tennessee diploma, regardless if they plan to apply to college. However, they do not need to attain a specific score to fulfill this graduation requirement. Districts must offer at least one of those assessments to all enrolled students at no cost.

Calculating School Accountability Scores in Tennessee

Tennessee’s school accountability law requires the Department of Education to assign each public school a letter grade of A-F and to publish that information on an online dashboard

Though this legislation was passed in 2016, numerous delays meant that school grades (for the 2022-2023 school year) were released for the first time in December 2023. The state released a new methodology used to calculate those grades shortly before their release. These methodology changes diverge from federal accountability requirements, meaning that Tennessee schools and districts receive federal accountability scores as well as state letter grades. 

Under the new state system, the state calculates high school letter grades using four components:

1. Achievement (50% of score): 
Achievement scores track on the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency or mastery on TCAP EOC exams. They may also include scores from approved equivalent exams, such as certain Advanced Placement exams or alternative assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities. English and mathematics EOC scores are weighted more heavily than other subject scores.. 

2. Growth (30% of score): 
Growth scores use the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS), which compares students’ scores on TCAP assessments (across all subjects) to their peers who have scored similarly on past assessments. School and district TVAAS scores are publicly available. Schools may receive one of five ratings, which are translated into a percentage to calculate school letter scores.

  • Level 1: There is significant evidence that students made less growth than expected. 
  • Level 2: There is moderate evidence that students made less growth than expected.
  • Level 3: There is evidence that students made growth as expected.
  • Level 4: There is moderate evidence that students made more growth than expected.
  • Level 5: There is significant evidence that students made more growth than expected.

3. Growth for bottom 25% of students (10% of score): 
This score uses the same TVAAS calculations as the growth score, but the data set is limited to the lowest-scoring 25% of students in each subject and grade level. The methodology for identifying those students varies slightly between schools and districts. 

4. College and career readiness (10% of score): 
College and career readiness (CCR) scores represent the percentage of students in the school’s most recent graduating cohort who demonstrate sufficient preparation for success after high school. Students can earn CCR status by meeting one of the following standards:

  • An ACT composite score of at least 21 or SAT composite score of at least 1060

  • A score of 31 or higher on the ASVAB AFQT (military entrance exam)

  • A Tier 3 industry credential (IC) OR a Tier 2 IC and at least one other IC (any tier is acceptable for the second credential)

  • One or more “postsecondary credits” (students can earn these credits in several ways, including by meeting benchmark scores on AP exams and by earning dual-enrollment credits)

Since TCAP scores contribute to both growth and achievement calculations, 90% of school letter grades is ultimately dependent on students’ performance on EOC assessments. 

Current State of School Assessments in Tennessee

While standardized assessments and accountability ratings are nothing new in Tennessee, the long-awaited implementation of the state’s school letter grade system has raised widespread concerns about its methodology and potential impacts.

The original formula created to determine letter grades (which the state never used) included three additional components: graduation rate, chronic absenteeism rate, and progress of English language learners. It also placed a lower weight on achievement scores and a higher weight on preparation for post-college.

The new formula, released just weeks before the first school grades in 2023, weights “pure achievement” — meaning test scores — at half of the overall grade. 

Many Tennessee educators and policymakers have argued that this revised formula will disadvantage schools since, historically, standardized assessment scores have tracked closely to socioeconomic status. Schools that enroll students who are already achieving at high levels could receive high grades even if they don’t actively improve student outcomes. In contrast, schools that significantly improve student attainment might still receive poor scores if their students enter at a lower starting point. 

Some educators have also argued that the methodology shift supports legislators’ push to increase the use of private school vouchers in Tennessee, a claim that the state government denies

In 2023, three out of four graded schools in Tennessee received a C or higher, with a median score of 3.2 on a 5-point scale. Five percent of schools received F’s.

While TCAP EOC scores increased slightly across all subjects in the 2022-2023 school year, statewide proficiency rates reveal ongoing challenges in Tennessee:

  • 42.3% of students scored proficient or above on grade 9 and 10 English Language Arts EOC exams
  • 22.9% of students scored proficient or above on grade 9-11 math EOC exams
  • 42.9% of students scored proficient or above on grade 10 science EOC exams
  • 38.5% of students scored proficient or above on grade 11 social studies EOC exams

Notably, while ELA scores have now exceeded prepandemic scores, math scores remain below prepandemic level, pointing to sustained learning loss. 

What Are the Impacts of School Grades in Tennessee?

Tennessee’s school and district grades are significant for several reasons.

First, since letter grades are publicly available to families, they are expected to drive enrollment decisions, which is especially important given Tennessee’s ongoing debate about school vouchers. School and district ratings can also impact real estate values

Second, a new school funding law passed in 2022 states that schools with a grade of D or F can be asked to appear in front of the Board of Education and to either submit a plan for corrective action or face financial and academic audits. The timing and extent of these consequences are not yet fully clear; the Board of Education has indicated that they will be applied no earlier than the 2024-2025 school year.

Solutions for Improving School Accountability Ratings in Tennessee

Since scores on TCAP EOC assessments are the most important factor in Tennessee school accountability ratings, improving test outcomes is the best way for schools to attain higher grades. 

This is especially true for schools with disadvantaged student populations, where test scores are typically lower. However, these schools, where students often need additional hands-on support from teachers, may struggle to devote limited teaching time and resources to test prep.

That’s why MasteryPrep offers equitable, mastery-based learning systems for school districts to improve performance on Tennessee’s statewide assessments. These comprehensive programs include everything students need to raise their scores and do not require any additional teacher planning.

MasteryPrep solutions are available for every Tennessee TCAP EOC assessment and closely align to Tennessee Academic Standards, focusing on the most commonly tested areas. 

These solutions include diagnostic tests to assess students’ starting points at the beginning of the year and digital SnapCourses that provide an engaging, online experience that adapts to each student. Teachers can control where students focus or automatically generate study plans based on the number of hours students have available. Plus, advanced analytics allow educators to track students’ progress toward each academic standard. 

Ultimately, these solutions can help schools level the playing field by offering all students the evidence-based tools they need to achieve higher scores, while allowing educators to focus on classroom teaching. 

Learn more about MasteryPrep for Tennessee Assessments

About MasteryPrep:

MasteryPrep provides mastery-based college readiness services and resources for the SAT®, ACT®, TSIA2, EOC, and WorkKeys®. MasteryPrep is the nationally preferred SAT and ACT prep provider of the Council for Opportunity in Education and licensed by ACT to include official ACT test questions in its programs. MasteryPrep partners with schools and districts to help level the standardized assessment playing field. MasteryPrep has ranked among the Inc. 5000 “Fastest Growing Companies” for six years and is a featured “Entrepreneur 360” company.


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