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IMPROVING EDUCATION

Race to the Top is a federal competition designed to reward states for education reform. The $4.35 billion fund, which is part of President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was announced about a year ago.

Tennessee and Delaware were the only winners, out of 40 applicants, in Phase 1 of the competition. Tennessee won $500 million; Delaware won $100 million.

Losing states, including Georgia, can apply by June 1 for Phase 2.

Source: Newspaper archives

Tennessee has kept detailed measurements of student achievement for nearly two decades but the data was off-limits to teachers, who still don't know exactly how to use it to improve instruction, according to reviews of the state's Race to the Top application.

The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, which measures how much students learn in a year, is a powerful but mostly unused tool to assess student performance and teacher effectiveness, according to education experts who scored the application.

Dan Challener, the president of the Public Education Foundation who helped write the Race to the Top application, agreed with some reviewer comments.

"Most districts use TVAAS as a way to measure learning, but its most powerful role is to improve instruction," he said. "If we can understand why someone got an A, we can replicate it."

But until January, only 14 percent of teachers had access to TVAAS data, which reviewers called the "most extensive longitudinal student achievement data system in the nation."

In a special session in January, the Tennessee General Assembly passed sweeping education reforms that helped the state win $500 million in Race to the Top money. Since then, every teacher in the state has been assigned a password to access the data online, Mr. Challener said.

And since lawmakers voted to make TVAAS scores 35 percent of tenure decisions, teachers can review their scores whenever they want, according to the Race to the Top application.

The data itself is complicated and can be difficult to understand, Mr. Challener said. So state officials will use some of the Race to the Top money to train teachers in college on how to use it.

"There's ways to make it much more user-friendly so teachers can focus on what the data tells them," Mr. Challener said.

Access to the data was restricted to protect teachers from fingerpointing, according to Dr. Kirk Kelly, Hamilton County Schools' director of accountability and testing.

State laws made the data more "secretive, confidential." Principals usually showed TVAAS scores to teachers once a year, but that was about it, he said.

Even with more access, the data still will be kept confidential, to avoid public lists of "best and worst teachers," he said.

Using TVAAS data, administrators can get a better look at where teaching and learning are thriving and where improvements are needed, he said.

"Perhaps the ball has been dropped in staff development -- what do we do with (teachers and students) who are doing well, or with those who are struggling," Dr. Kelly said.

Follow Kelli Gauthier on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Times Editorial: Tennessee at the top

Article: Tennessee one of two states to win Race to the Top money

Article: Georgia fails in its bid for Race to the Top

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