By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
The Associated Press
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday applauded the state's improved standardized test scores but acknowledged more work has to be done to meet federal regulations.
Preliminary results from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program showed math scores in third- through eighth-grade improved by 7 percent this year over last year and reading scores improved by 3.7 percent.
In 18 school systems, student scores improved by 20 percent or more.
Despite the improvement, the state is only 41 percent proficient in math for those grades, and 48.5 percent in reading. Under guidelines of No Child Left Behind, the nation's governing education law, the state is required to be 60 percent proficient in math next year, 66 percent in reading, and 100 percent in both subjects by 2014.
"We're not at all satisfied with where we are," Haslam told reporters following his speech at Northfield Elementary School. "But it is a significant step forward."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if No Child Left Behind isn't changed, even though education experts have questioned that estimate.
Still, no one thinks states will meet the law's goal of 100 percent proficiency in just three years. A school that fails to meet targets for several consecutive years faces sanctions that can include firing teachers or closing the school entirely.
Haslam acknowledged Thursday that some change to the educational law is needed.
"With 80 percent of the schools projected to not be in compliance, we need to have some way to react to that instead of just say every school is not meeting the criteria," he said.
During his speech, the Republican governor thanked those most responsible for trying to help students meet the federal goal: teachers.
Haslam recently signed education reform legislation that left many educators unhappy. The tenure law, in particular, requires a teacher to be on the job five years instead of three to get tenure. And it creates a way for job security to be revoked for poor teaching performance.
Haslam made a point to emphasize teachers' importance.
"I want to start out with a very, very pointed message, and that is to thank the teachers of Tennessee," he said. "Every now then it's easy to say we need to do so much better in education, but in the midst of that, we should always stop and recognize when improvement happens."
Linda Gilbert, director of Murfreesboro City Schools, said she encourages teachers to take a sort of collaborative approach to addressing the needs of each child, instead of "teaching to the test."
"Weekly we have teachers that sit down together and they talk about individual children and what those children's needs are," said Gilbert, whose schools saw a 22.5 percent combined growth in math and reading. "So we're constantly assessing the children and seeing where they are with their skills and what we need to do to address those skills."
The release of the Tennessee scores comes a few days after an investigation in Atlanta revealed the involvement of 178 teachers and principals in a standardized tests cheating scandal. Criminal charges are likely for some of the 82 educators who confessed and the rest who were implicated by colleagues.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, told The Associated Press earlier this week that Tennessee's system to evaluate teachers could pressure some to meddle with scores. The value-added system measures a student's progress on standardized tests over time to evaluate the educators.
"A number of states are starting to follow Tennessee's so-called value-added measurement," Schaeffer said. "That's going to put even more pressure on educators to manipulate scores."
Haslam said he's going to make sure that doesn't happen in Tennessee.
"I think it's something you're always vigilant about, because we're saying data matters," he said. "And if data matters, the data needs to be pure, and authentic and transparent."
Gene Loyd, principal of Northfield Elementary, agreed.
"We have proctors that come into each classroom, and they are there not only to keep an eye on the kids, but also to make sure everybody's held accountable," he said.