Cook: Poor, flawed TCAP

Cook: Poor, flawed TCAP

September 15th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Before we talk about the startling events out of Gatlinburg, let's first discuss the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or as it's loathsomely known to many teachers and students, the TCAP.

(Personally, I'd rather watch paint dry. But this conversation is important. And you're not going to like it one bit.)

TCAP is among the most important documents in the state. It influences teacher salaries and kids' final grades. It determines curriculum and what's taught and what isn't. And if Nashville has its way, the TCAP could soon help determine which teachers are licensed and which aren't.

So you'd think -- since so many livelihoods are staked to this -- that it would be an expert test. Bulletproof. Perfect in every way.

"TCAP is a poor indicator of academic proficiency," said Dr. Ken Chilton, former director of Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

Come again?

"It's a terribly misused test," he said. "It's designed to measure student skills and progress. It was not designed to measure teacher effectiveness."

Chilton, now a professor at Tennessee State University, analyzed TCAP scores and compared them to scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly thought of as the gold standard of achievement tests.

If our kids show improvements on TCAP scores, then those gains ought to translate to better NAEP scores.


"TCAP is nowhere near basic proficiency by NAEP standards; in fact, it is at the bottom in all tests examined," Chilton said.

Take eighth-grade math. Twenty-four percent of Tennessee kids scored at or above proficiency on NAEP in 2011, which is not significantly different from their scores in 2009 (25%) or 2007 (23%) or 2003 (21%).

In fourth-grade reading, our kids' NAEP at-or-above proficiency scores did not grow in any significant way from 1992 (23%) to 2011 (26%).

In eighth-grade reading, NAEP scores from 1998 are exactly the same as 2011.

Yet TCAP scores continue to improve.

In other words, TCAP is a misleading indicator of how our kids are doing. Kind of like judging a backyard basketball game as equivalent to varsity try-outs.

"It is a flawed instrument," Chilton said.

This is not to say that TCAP gains are not good, or that the heroic work done by students and teachers to improve TCAP scores is not noteworthy and admirable. Not saying that at all.

And yes, raising standards -- as Nashville hopes to do -- will diminish such testing discrepancies.

But to go ahead and yoke TCAP to the heart of public education and its students and teachers -- to live and die by such a "flawed" test -- reveals the policies of the Department of Education as delegitimate, hollow and possibly ruinous.

And to implement high-stakes testing when gobs of research proves doing so will backfire in hazardous ways further exposes Nashville policies as a form of betrayal.

Which brings us to Gatlinburg.

Last Wednesday, 63 state superintendents signed a letter there that they plan to deliver to officials in Nashville this week. Powerful and tired-of-this-stuff honest, their letter reads like a declaration of independence.

"We have begun to feel that the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers schoolteachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners," the letter says.

"The superintendents signed hereto have been willing to take this extraordinary step not as an act of resistance rather as a plea out of a sense of responsibility for each of the communities we serve," it continues.

"We are not content with the current leadership and feel that we are not best serving our state in this manner," it proclaims.

For far too long, teachers and principals and superintendents have been burdened in untold ways, thanks to over-testing.

Now, with this letter, it seems the tide may be turning.

"I'm expected to teach kids some sense of civic responsibility," said Dr. Dan Lawson, superintendent in Tullahoma and main author of the letter. "If I don't have the guts enough to stand up and express my concerns and challenges we have in our society and government, then I need to be in a different calling or different work."

No, Dr. Lawson.

It's not you that needs to go.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.