NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday used Tennessee students' continued progress this year on standardized tests to counter criticism that the state has become too reliant on such measures.
"There are folks who want to minimize the use of data in education," said Haslam as his administration released statewide results from the 2013-14 school year's Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. "I strongly feel they are doing a disservice to our students. We use data to see where we can do a better job."
The results showed Tennessee high school students made "strong" improvements in terms of being proficient or advanced in most end-of-year exams.
Some scores for children in grades three through eight, however, were flat this year, and reading proficiency even dipped in several lower grades. Yet for the most part, proficiency rates for all students are at or near their highest levels in the last five years.
For example, in 2010, fewer than 35 percent of students were proficient or advanced in math. In 2014, that figure was 51.3 percent. In science, 51.9 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in 2010. This year that number was 63.6 percent.
Overall, students collectively made gains in 19 of the 31 grade and subject-level tests. In grades three through eight, students made gains in 14 of 24 areas ranging from reading and math to science and social studies.
In grades nine-12, students made gains in five of seven subject areas. Gains came in English I and II, Algebra I and II and Biology I. There were minor dips in English III and History I.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said he was "especially excited Algebra II jumped."
In 2011, only 31 percent of Algebra II students were deemed proficient or advanced. Today's it's close to half, the commissioner said. In 2013-14, the rate increased nearly 5.9 percentage points, he said.
Last year, Tennessee students showed the largest percentage improvement among states on the National Assessment of Education Progress, popularly known as the "nation's report card."
Haslam credited teachers, students and parents with the improvements. He noted that "systemic change over time is hard work."
His administration says students have made "significant and sustained growth in academic achievement" since the governor took office in January 2011.
More than 100,000 additional students are on grade level in math, while some 57,000 more students are at or above grade level in science.
But third-graders didn't come out so well in reading. Proficiency levels fell from 48.8 percent to 43.8 percent. There were minor dips in reading for several other grades.
Huffman noted that teachers and students are still transitioning to new and more challenging Common Core standards in math and English. Yet they're using old tests not aligned to the new standards. There's a new emphasis on analysis, demonstrating knowledge and writing as opposed to memorization.
This year there was a three-day delay in releasing TCAP test scores to local districts. Officials explained they were trying to complete a process called "post-equating" and review the data more thoroughly given the number of changes.
The delay resulted in the state waiving a requirement that local districts apply final scores on students' final report card.
This year was to have been the last for the old TCAP tests. But conservative Republican critics of Common Core joined with Democrats to delay the new tests. In a compromise with Haslam, there will be a one-year delay as the state looks for a new vendor for the tests.
TCAP will be the test again this coming year.
David Mansouri, with the nonprofit State Collaborative on Reforming Education, said that as Tennessee teachers rise to the challenge of higher expectations, "TCAP gains over the past four years show their hard work is delivering results."
Students are making "outstanding progress in high school mathematics," he said, noting the "fastest-growing industries in Tennessee require a solid knowledge in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and this academic improvement means more students will be ready for college and the work force."
But he said the results "also make clear that the state must bear down on helping students make progress in reading, particularly in elementary school."
Testing data should prove helpful in that, he said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.