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Tenn. Teachers' Union Credits Motivational Video, Not Policy Efforts, for NAEP Gains

If you are a regular reader of Education Week, you're probably aware that education-policy watchers have been keeping a close eye on Tennessee recently. One reason for this is that, over the past several years, the state has been a forerunner in putting in place a number of aggressive school-improvement initiatives, prominently including a revamped teacher-evaluation system that takes account of student test-score data. A second reason is that Tennessee was one of only three jurisdications in the country to show gains in both reading and math on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Unsurprisingly, speculation has arisen as to whether the test-score gains were attributable to the policy changes. Some education-reform advocates—including the Tennessee Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman—have made no bones about affirming the connection. Others observers have advised caution, noting that any number of factors (some difficult to identify) can play into test-score fluxuations.

Now the Tennesee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, has added a new wrinkle to the debate. According to The Tennessean, the union, which has doggedly opposed the state's school-policy agenda, is pushing the claim that the NAEP improvements could be explained in part by something far more rudimentary—like a motivational video, for example.

Apparently, prior to the exam, all the 4th and 8th graders in Tennessee who had been randomly selected to take the NAEP were shown a 90-second Tennessee Department of Education-produced video featuring then-Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the state's first lady, Crissy Haslam. In the clip, Hasselbeck and Haslam talk about the importance of the test and express confidence in the students' ability to do well. Hasslebeck encourages the students to be persistent on the exam, throwing in the inevitable football analogy about how when he gets sacked, he has to get up and keep competing. (Of course, sometimes quarterbacks end up with concussions, but you get the idea.)  

"You're Tennessee's team in reading and writing," Hassleback says. "And I know you'll do your best."

According to The Tennessean, the union has "gone out of it's way to emphasize the video, ..." saying it helped make the NAEP relevant to the students in a way that it hadn't been in the past.

In a media release, the group expressed consternation that while the "the State Department of Education has highlighted teacher evaluation(s) as a reason for the NAEP improvement," state officials "have not talked publicly about the extraordinary efforts to motivate NAEP selected students."

Whether or not the video was a factor in the test-score gains would be mighty difficult to determine, of course. There is some scattered research out there to suggest that giving students a chance to reflect on their emotions or potential for success prior to an exam can contribute to better scores. Other studies suggest that students do better on exams when they have a clear stake in the results. But simply categorizing a test-prep activity as "motivational" probably doesn't cut it in terms of providing convincing evidence. 

In response to the union's claim, Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the Tennesee Department of Education, had a simpler—albeit somewhat overly self-evident—explanation for the test-score growth.

"We doubt that student gains on NAEP are the result of watching a one-minute video," she told The Tennessean. "Rather, we attribute Tennessee's gains to the extraordinary work of our teachers and their students, which has resulted in growth on state and national assessments."

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