Many Tennessee students are still scoring below grade level on state standardized tests, but scores are continuing to improve, results from this year’s exams show.
The greatest gains this year are in science and math while progress in reading and English is lagging behind, according to state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
“My hope is that a year from now we will be standing up here saying math continued to grow really fast and reading grew just as fast as math,” Huffman told reporters after a press conference releasing the test results Thursday.
Test scores went up for low-income students, said Huffman, slightly narrowing the achievement gap between poor students and their peers. Other gaps between black and Latino students and their white peers also shrunk some this year, he said.
At least 50 percent of third- through eighth-graders are on grade level in every subject measured by the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, a state-mandated standardized test given each spring. According to the state Department of Education, breaking through that 50 percent mark in all subjects in the lower grade levels is a first since the state reset standards in 2009.
Among high schoolers — who take tests called the End of Course Exams — about 60 percent or more are at least on grade level in Algebra I, English I and II and Biology. Roughly 40 percent are at least proficient in Algebra II and English III. (Click here  for a table of TCAP achievement and end of course results.)
“We knew when we started this, like I said (then), this is going to be a marathon not a sprint,” Gov. Bill Haslam said at the unveiling of the test scores at the state Capitol. “But it is very important to note that we are seeing that steady growth and progress since 2010.”
Since the state began shifting its focus to science, technology, engineering and math — topics known as STEM subjects — students have made the greatest gains there. While Algebra II scores are low, the percentage of students scoring at least proficient saw a boost of 8.7 percentage points this year. Scores reflected a 6.4 percentage point gain in biology and 5 percent point gain in Algebra I.
Scores took a slight dip in English II for high schoolers where 59.5 percent scored proficient or advanced this year compared to 60.7 percent last year, a 1.2 percentage point drop.
Fifth- and eighth-graders also fell slightly in reading: 55 percent of fifth-graders on grade level now compared to 57.1 percent last year, and 46.9 percent of eighth-graders at grade level compared to 47.2 percent last year.
“We have too many kids reach middle grades with weak reading skills and so we have to train middle grades’ teachers and give them a little more help and support on what you do when you get a kid in your classroom who is way behind in reading,” he said.
District-focused test scores are due out late next month.
The test scores come after the state has spent the last few years plugging in a series of education reforms, including changes in how principals grade teachers, opening the doors to more charter schools and implementing new Common Core state standards. Huffman credited the progress to teachers, principals and superintendents.
Last year will mark the last exams under TCAP. In 2014-15, the state will shift to exams under the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers, otherwise known as PARCC. The new tests will align tests with new Common Core state standards that emphasize analytical skills over rote memorization.
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