Alex Hale, left, raises his hand while classmate Katie Rains takes notes from a board listing topics likely to appear on state exams during a biology class Wednesday at Whitwell High School in Whitwell, Tenn. With the help of their teachers, students at Whitwell High have begun tracking their progress on completing standards for state-mandated end-of-course exams.
WHITWELL, Tenn. — Call it "learning to the test."
For years, educators have wrestled with balancing the need to measure student performance against the fear of creating a culture that's focused too much on state tests.
But nowadays, it's not just teachers who are eyeing the test. The pressure to lift scores has trickled down to students, who are becoming increasingly invested in their own test performance and preparation.
At Whitwell High School, core classes such as math, science, history and English all center on the state's end-of-course exams. Here, the discussion is no longer about whether teachers should teach to the exams. That conversation is over.
Teachers and students have concluded that test performance is crucial in the increasingly test-driven environment of Tennessee's public education system. Not only are teachers' evaluations now linked to student test performance, but students' letter grades also are affected by how well they fill in those bubble sheets.
"Everything we do throughout the year leads up to one thing," said sophomore David Burris.
In this era of high-stakes testing, teachers everywhere are leaning on data, tracking student performance across grade levels and throughout the year on academic coursework and practice tests. Some schools have whole data walls or data rooms filled with graphs that chart progress.
But at Whitwell, students are tracking that progress, too. They keep folders full of test score data, projections and state standards. They know which standards they've mastered and which they still need to work on.
"I hate the test," said Whitwell Principal Joshua Holtcamp. "But the state of education means that we have to teach to the test."
As part of sweeping education reforms, the Tennessee General Assembly moved in 2010 to include test scores in student grades. TCAP, the test for students in third through eighth grades, accounts for 15 to 25 percent of their final grades. The high school end-of-course exams now make up a quarter of a student's final grade, which is the most weight it has ever received.
Aside from giving students skin in the game, officials say the move prepares youngsters for college exams and validates that students actually have mastered the material.
"Having scores count as a component of the course grade adds meaning and motivation for the student, the teacher and the school," said Zachary Rossley, a deputy assistant commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education.
In high school, teachers say the measure is enough to make or break a student's shot at passing a class.
But teachers and students say some good is coming from this change. No longer are teachers alone responsible for how students do. Kids themselves now have a stake come the spring testing season.
And the expectations for students are crystal clear.
In Whitwell, state teaching standards are posted on the walls.
"I know exactly what they need to know," said biology teacher Elishea Roberts. "They know exactly what they need to know."
Roberts gives her students multiple practice exams throughout the year. Each lesson comes with a lengthy list of Tennessee's State Performance Indicators, or SPIs, which help her hedge which items are most likely to appear on the state's exams. Teaching heredity last week, she spent more time on diseases like sickle cell anemia -- she's betting it's more likely to show up on the test than other rare genetic disorders.
The standards give teachers a clear map of how to teach.
"It's narrowed it down for me," she said. "But the disadvantage is it puts me in this little box. There are lots of creative things I'd like to do that I don't have time for."
That's true across core classes. English courses no longer include productions of plays, with costumes and scenery. And the math teacher's favorite math magazine project has been relegated to homework.
Teachers fear that students are mastering more rigorous standards but at the expense of a rich classroom experience.
Administrators say the school is always battling to stress the value of education in a community where nearly half of adults have no high school diploma. About two-thirds of Whitwell students are considered poor. So a play production at school might be the only time students ever experience a drama.
In algebra courses, students are working on different standards at their own pace. At any given time, groups of students may be working on multiple concepts. Teachers see that differentiation as helping both high achievers and struggling students.
After all, the school needs to see growth in its lowest achievers, but also needs to get even the best test takers to improve if it wants high marks on value added scores, which track year-over-year growth.
"Everybody's got to be on high alert," said Holtcamp, the principal.
He noted that his own evaluation is based on teacher performance, which in turn is partly based on student test scores. So students are the next logical step in that accountability chain.
Roberts sees the change as creating a team environment in which everyone is invested. She tells students she's the coach and they're the players.
"It affects us both," she said.
Some students take the sports analogy a step further and turn test prep into a competition. While teachers never disclose scores, kids at this small school of about 350 students often share how they're doing.
Sophomore Alex Hale said he "lives for competition," which translates to his test performance. He often competes with classmates on exams and assignments, he said.
But his biggest competition might be himself.
Because he has always done well on tests, the state projects a near-perfect performance for him. So for him to boost his teacher's evaluation score, he has to exceed that already high expectation.
"It's hard for me to get higher than they project," he said. "It's way more stressful than I ever thought it would be."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...