Last month, the Tennessee Department of Education released scores of TN Ready student assessments for the 2017-2018 school year from schools and school districts all across the state. As it did, it announced that there were 11 school districts in the state that had achieved the highest ratings in student growth in all tested subjects.

Among them: the Oneida Special School District.

Tennessee measures student growth using the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS). It is a formula that is designed to look beyond each student’s final score on the end-of-year test, comparing their grades year-over-year to see how quickly they are progressing academically and to determine the impact that schools and teachers are having on students’ scores.

Ultimately, TVAAS places a rating of one to five, with five being the best, on student growth in all tested areas. The OSSD was one of 11 districts to receive a level five rating in all subject areas, and a composite score of five.

Dr. Jeanny Hatfield, OSSD’s director, says that didn’t happen just by chance.

“It’s a wonderful achievement. It really is,” she said. “Even with all the chaos (the state experienced issues with online testing), I went up and I said, ‘Look, we’re taking the test serious. I know the state has flunked us again, but it’s still game on at Oneida.’ And they really performed well.”

In the end, though, student growth is about more than an attitude when end-of-year tests roll about. It’s a process — one that begins when the academic year begins.

In addition to the TN Ready test at the end of each year, which is mandated, Oneida administers a separate test to its students — which is not mandated. It is a benchmark assessment developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, or NWEA, a not-for-profit, research-based organization that specializes in assessments that measure student growth. The NWEA tests are given three times each year — once near the beginning of the school year, once near the end of the first semester, and once near the end of the school year.

“It has been very beneficial for us,” Hatfield said. “It’s expensive, but sometimes you have to put money into certain areas, and we’re able to use this to gauge where our students are.”

Part of the problem with the state’s mandated assessments, Hatfield said, is that the scores are almost useless — “an autopsy,” she calls it. By the time school administrators receive the scores, the school year is over and a new year has begun.

NWEA’s scoring system is almost instantaneous, helping provide administrators and teachers with quick feedback on areas where students need more work. From there, Hatfield said, plans are put into action.

“We group kids based on their skills,” she said. “I might have a kindergarten student who can add but can’t subtract. So, if he has trouble subtracting, he’ll be grouped with kids with similar skills so that we can focus on that specific area.” 

Hatfield terms the approach an “all-hands-on-deck” mentality. Everyone in the school system who has been professionally trained is focused on helping fix skill deficits.

“Once they’ve mastered them, we move on to classroom instruction,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they miss Tier 1 instruction; we still work on that. But we’re focused on fixing their skill deficits.”

Oneida schools have been using the NWEA assessments for several years. The scoring system is complicated; it doesn’t use a 0-100 grading scale. Hatfield said it took a number of years for the school system to master the system. But, she said, the extra effort has been worth it.

“Our kids are our priority and that makes our job tough,” she said. “If we’re truly trying to do what’s best for kids, it’s going to be difficult.” 

Of course, there’s more to students demonstrating growth over the course of a school year than assessments. Hatfield also credits the school system’s staff and parents.

“That’s our true success,” she said. “You have some parents who really work with kids and they support these kids. And our staff works hard. The one thing people don’t see is our teachers are here late and here on weekends.”

There are other aspects, too. Hatfield said that every person on the OSSD staff plays a role in some way — from teacher assistants who are providing the interventions and supports for struggling students, to bus drivers getting students to and from school safely to cafeteria staff preparing healthy meals each day to extracurricular activity sponsors and coaches providing opportunity for academic enrichment and building teamwork.

“Without each and every one of these people, success wouldn’t be possible,” she said. “I am proud of every person that plays a role each day in the lives of our students.”

Ultimately, Hatfield said, everything boils down to one simple motto: put the kids first.

“The kids are first. The staff is second. We are below them. Period,” she said. “My principals know that is my priority. Administration and myself are last. I am a servant, and I expect a servant’s heart out of the people close to me.”

This article is the September 2018 installment of Focus On: Education, presented on the third week of each month by S.T.A.N.D. as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print version can be found on Page A3 of the September 20, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.