Here's an in-depth look on how students fared on TCAPs:
Here are three other trends from the 2013 TCAP results and how they're underscored by what's happening in Hamilton County schools.
Strong leaders, strong teachers, strong scores
No one -- teachers, students or the principal -- escapes scrutiny at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. The school follows the data on each student's performance intensely. Elaine Swafford, who earned her educational street cred years ago as principal of the Howard School, took over the charter school a year ago. After all teachers reapplied for their positions as part of a federal grant school turnaround model, about 10 were swapped out. The school day was extended and academic coaches were brought on. So far, scores are improving: The amount of students passing middle school math tests increased by 27.1 percentage points and reading was up by 13. 9 points. "Everybody knows in education there's not a silver bullet," Swafford said. "Schools go where leaders and teachers take them."
Arts and academics
Educators have long cited a relationship between the arts and academic performance. And as evidence, some point to the six Hamilton County reward schools that were recognized by the state for posting the highest overall academic achievement in Tennessee. Of those six, all have a visual arts program, though three of those are paid for by parents and community support. Yet only 15 of the county's 44 elementary schools have a visual arts teacher. Neelie Parker, principal at Big Ridge Elementary, one of the district's reward schools, said the school's strong art and music programs are a big part of the school's academic success. "I'm a firm believer that you have to look at the whole child," she said.
Five of Hamilton County's lowest-performing schools -- grouped together in the district's iZone -- are in the thick of what district leaders hope will be a transformation. And already one of those schools, Orchard Knob Elementary, is posting big gains. Though its overall performance placed it in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, Orchard Knob saw enough growth in 2013 to also be named a reward school for its improvement. Social studies scores moved up nearly 24 percentage points, while math improved 7.4 percent and reading scores inched up a point and a half. The iZone is pumping some $10 million into its five schools, increasing teacher pay, training opportunities and the length of the school day. Principal LaFrederick Thirkill says those things, together with the growth teachers are already realizing, will get Orchard Knob out of the iZone. "Money doesn't raise test scores," he said. "Effective teaching practices raise test scores."
Here's how students fared on TCAPs. Results show the percentage of students performing at grade level for grades three through eight.
Hamilton County - 2011 - 2012 - 2013
Reading - 44.6 - 45.7 - 46.9
Math - 44.9 - 49.6 - 54.2
Tennessee - 2011 - 2012 - 2013
Reading - 47.5 - 49.9 - 50.3
Math - 41 - 47.2 - 50.7
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
The narrative about Tennessee's public schools in the past few years has been dominated by reform and improvement. State officials contend that their policy shifts on everything from teacher accountability to state standards have been successful, as evidenced by growth on student test scores.
And by and large, test scores have slowly but surely improved statewide.
Again this year, more of Tennessee's students passed state tests in math, science and reading. But the last few years of testing data, especially in Hamilton County, show that scores in reading and language arts are barely inching forward. While math scores for students in grades three through eight improved by nearly 10 percentage points between 2011 and 2013, results show reading scores improved by only about 2 percentage points over those three years.
Statewide test averages show a similar story. While Tennessee's elementary and middle schoolers originally performed better in reading in 2011, growth in math scores means that more students are now meeting expectations in math than in reading.
"Scores are definitely not where we want them to be," said Kelli Gauthier, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education. "We've been really happy with the results we've seen in math and science. But reading continues to be an area where we want to put additional resources."
Hamilton County Schools officials say the divide between the ABCs and 123s is getting special attention this school year, with a new reading initiative and key staffers recruited to lead it.
To lead the effort, the system's central office tapped Aimee Randolph, formerly principal of Thrasher Elementary School, one of the district's biggest success stories. Thrasher was among only three schools in Tennessee to be named reward schools -- a designation for the top 5 percent of schools -- two years in a row for both overall high test scores and growth in test scores. Randolph is now the district's director of instruction, overseeing K-12 teaching efforts.
"Who better for the job?" Superintendent Rick Smith said.
And former Calvin Donaldson Elementary Principal Becky Coleman now oversees a districtwide literacy push from the central office. Smith said the entire school system is making reading a focus this year.
"Moving that needle is not an easy thing," he said. "It's not an overnight event. It takes some real intentional planning, professional development and focus. And that's what we're trying to instill in our classroom teachers."
Coleman said the district is putting a "laserlike focus" on reading and literacy training this year. Teachers have more training opportunities this year, and the district has rolled out a new K-12 "framework" for reading efforts. It's similar to an earlier math framework, which district leaders cite as one reason behind improving math scores across the system.
In a new curriculum map for reading teachers, officials have dissected which state reading standards teachers ought to be teaching each quarter. And principals are getting extra attention, too, Coleman said, through new training sessions designed to help them better help teachers in reading.
But ultimately, the teaching of reading happens with individual students, who need teachers to meet them wherever they are, she said.
"Literacy is organic," Coleman said. "So you have to be able to identify specifically the needs of that student in literacy."
On their face, Hamilton County's reading scores could be alarming. On average, 46.9 percent of students in grades three through eight met grade-level expectations in reading. But LaFrederick Thirkill, principal of Orchard Knob Elementary, said there's more to the state's reading Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program scores than just the skill of reading.
"TCAP doesn't assess reading," he said. "It assesses a child's ability to think critically about the test. It's not about reading."
The TCAP tests grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and other language arts skills, Thirkill said. Because to actually test a child's fluency in reading, a teacher would have to watch and listen to a child as he reads.
In reading classes, students are often grouped by ability. Different texts are made available based on a student's reading level. Schools are invested heavily in the idea of reading abilities, Thirkill said, yet the state's test looks at more than just whether students are literate.
"We're focusing on reading levels," he said, "and the state assessments are focusing on standards of critical thinking."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.
Here are selected highlights from the recently released 2013 TCAP scores:
• Results at the Howard School plummeted in several categories. Algebra I scores were down 13 percentage points. On English I tests, only about a quarter of students met gradelevel expectations - down more than 20 percentage points from last year. In Biology I, only 13 percent of students passed, a nearly 35-point drop over 2012.
• The newly minted STEM School Chattanooga posted English I test scores above both state and Hamilton County averages. On Algebra I, 51.1 percent of STEM students met gradelevel expectations, shy of the statewide average of 60.3 percent, yet still above the Hamilton County average of 49.3.
• In its first year of public test scores, the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence posted math scores near state and county averages. But with 53.3 percent of students reading at grade level, its reading/language arts scores surpassed both state and local averages.
Source: Tennessee Department of Education