Tennessee sees student improvement from summer programs

By: - September 22, 2021 9:44 pm
Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee on September 15, 2021. Kingsbury Middle School in Berclair neighborhood of Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee on September 15, 2021. Kingsbury Middle School in Berclair neighborhood of Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Tennessee students who took part in summer camps improved in English and math, regaining some of their pandemic learning loss, after the Legislature pumped $160 million into new programs, according to new data the state released Wednesday.

Test scores from 120,000 students who participated in the classes showed an improvement of 5.97 percentage points overall in English language arts, with elementary grades seeing improvement of 7.34 percentage points and middle schoolers improving moderately by .66 percentage points, the Department of Education report said.

Overall math performance showed an improvement of 10.49 percentage points with elementary students improving by 11.66 percentage points and middle schoolers improving by 6 percentage points.

Tests students took before and after the summer programs were not as exhaustive as the TNReady test used to determine how much students improve from one year to the next. The abbreviated tests used 10 questions from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program most likely to show how students will perform and took only 30 minutes compared to three hours for a typical end-of-year test, according to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Schwinn said students statewide took the same tests at every grade level.

Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right with Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, was put on notice Thursday by the State Textbook Commission. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right with Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, was put on notice Thursday by the State Textbook Commission. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Despite dialing back the assessment, officials said they were optimistic about the results. 

“I’m satisfied in the first year of a statewide summer school program, and, again, we’re one of the few states that did a statewide program, I’m satisfied it gives us that good foundational baseline information,” Schwinn said.

Cleveland City Schools Director Russell Dyer told lawmakers in a joint meeting of House Education committees he saw improvements based on the “benchmark” test.

Dyer said students enjoyed the camps and “had fun this summer” while schools sneaked in some education.

“Teachers were rock stars,” he added.

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he was encouraged by the data coming out of the summer learning camps, which were put in place by the Legislature after he called a special session in January to deal with expected learning loss caused by the pandemic. “Swift action” made a difference, the governor said.

Students missed the final weeks of the 2019-20 school year when COVID-19 started to spread across the state. Tens of thousands of students spent the 2020-21 school year in hybrid model learning, a mixture of classroom and virtual class time done via computer.

Still, the governor acknowledged, “We have a long way to go” and a good deal of student learning “to recover.”

Commissioner Schwinn pointed out the summer learning programs helped students build “tremendous momentum” heading into this school year, which she described as “very tough.”

Summer learning camps and after-school camps had higher attendance from elementary students than middle school students, she added.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat, welcomed the news but said it’s too early for a “victory lap.”

“I think the sample size of the students who attended summer school is pretty small and I’d wait until we find out more about this school year and the one million students who have struggled this year through the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and classes shutting down for weeks due to quarantines and the lack of consistent opportunities for remote learning during those quarantines,” Dixie said in a statement.

School districts across the state have quarantined thousands of students because of COVID-19, and some districts have shut down schools because hundreds of children, teachers and staff caught the virus. 

At least one Memphis student died from COVID-19, and at least 14 public school employees, including teachers, staff and bus riders have died since August from the disease.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville welcomed the positive news but cautioned it’s too early for a “victory lap,” noting the sample size of students who attended summer programs was small.

“There is a lot of work that lies ahead, but after seeing what Tennessee accomplished this summer for its students, I believe our public schools are proving what’s possible,” Schwinn said in a statement.

Data showed economically disadvantaged students were impacted the most by the pandemic, according to Schwinn, who also told lawmakers that students who had in-person learning during the pandemic showed less decline than those who had virtual or remote learning.

The Legislature passed a measure this year prohibiting virtual learning. But because of the continuing problems related to the pandemic, Schwinn has approved numerous waivers to enable students and schools to use virtual learning.

Asked by Rep. John Ray Clemmons whether she believes she should be able to approve waivers unilaterally, Schwinn responded that she doesn’t make health-care decisions but determines whether a school can continue to operate.

Clemmons pointed out Metro Nashville Public Schools students, who took classes remotely during most of the 2020-21 school year, showed improvements. But Schwinn noted they returned to in-classroom learning toward the end of the year and said the district’s results could not be compared directly to the state’s.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, during a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, at right, during a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee in July, said he wants currently 46th-ranked Tennessee schools to be number one in the country. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Questions asked by Clemmons brought a rebuke from state Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, who noted lawmakers should focus on returning students to classrooms. Cepicky said he wants Tennessee to rank first in the country for education, even though it falls into 46th nationally.

“If you don’t want to compete, fine. There’s other places to live,” Cepicky said, pointing his statement toward Clemmons, then shaking his head.

Clemmons said afterward is “reasonable” to think students who volunteered to attend summer camps with student-teacher ratios between 3-to-1 and 15-to-1 to show improvement.

“However, it’s fair to question the ‘promising results’ being sold by the (Lee) administration,” Clemmons said.

He pointed out little information is available about how many students were performing at grade level when they took the tests before camps started and where they took the tests. Lawmakers only recently received TCAP data, and he questioned how the Department of Education turned the data around so quickly.

The Department of Education is receiving $4.5 billion from the federal government, some $3.6 billion of which is to go directly to school districts to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools are filing plans with the state on how they plan to spend that money.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.