Fewer than half of all Hamilton County elementary and middle school students scored at or above grade level in math and reading, as the district slid into "target" status, according to the annual State Report Card released Friday.
Scores from black students, those with disabilities and English-language learners also were too low to satisfy Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law, so the district as a whole failed to make AYP.
"We don't want to put our heads in the sand. ... We have a long way to go," said Superintendent Jim Scales at a news conference Friday at Ooltewah High School. "It's our responsibility to teach all our kids to the best of our ability."
After more than a year spent trying to lower public expectations about test score results, the Tennessee Department of Education released its Report Card on Friday, about three months later than usual. Because the state switched to tougher academic standards and tests last school year, officials braced for what they expected to be particularly low scores.
State officials also had to set new cut scores and benchmarks after the shifts to more rigorous standards, which they said contributed to the late release of the data. Also Friday, officials released AYP results that usually come out in August.
Hamilton County has 48 schools in good standing and 28 whose status ranges from "target" -- missing one or more benchmarks for one year -- to "corrective action" after four years of not making AYP.
Of the largest five school districts in Tennessee -- Metro Nashville, Memphis, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties -- only Shelby made AYP this year.
In 2002, the federal government had states create their own academic standards.
Only years later did Tennessee officials realize they set standards too low, and even "proficient" students weren't prepared for high school, college or the workplace.
The new standards, enacted last year, are an effort to catch Tennessee students up to those in the rest of the country. From some of the lowest in the nation, state officials now say Tennessee's standards are second only to those in Massachusetts.
To meet the No Child Left Behind goal of having all students proficient in English and math by 2014, Tennessee must increase its number of proficient students by about 20 percent every year.
"This year, right now, we don't have an overwhelming number of students proficient in math and language arts. People need to see it," state Education Commissioner Bruce Opie said.
Despite all the talk about low test scores, Scales said the results are actually better than he expected.
"We thought the overall scoring would be lower. We took a deep breath, and said, 'OK, they're not as bad as we anticipated.'" he said. "They are not nearly where they need to be."
By the numbers
Districtwide, 38 percent of elementary and middle school students scored at or above grade level in math, and 48 percent did the same in reading/language arts.
Hamilton County's overall scores were close to state averages for all students.
The state added a new category of classification this year called "basic," which amounts to a minimal grasp on grade-level material, officials said. Students scoring basic usually would answer correctly 40 percent to 62 percent of test questions, said Kirk Kelly, the district's director of accountability and testing.
The majority of Hamilton County's elementary and middle school students -- 36.5 percent in math and 37.6 percent in reading/language arts -- fell into the basic category.
Middle schools struggled more than elementary schools, Scales said, dragging that number down.
"We need to work harder on the middle-school transition," he said.
High school students fared slightly better, as 67 percent and 68 percent of them scored at or above grade level in math and reading, respectively.
Officials celebrated Hamilton County's graduation rate, which soared this year from 70.9 percent in 2009 to 80.2 percent.
Ooltewah High School, which has been on the state's high-priority list for several years because of its graduation rate, improved enough this year to come off the list. Friday's news conference was held at the school to highlight the school's accomplishment.
The AYP calculation uses the graduation rate from the previous year. Although Ooltewah's 2010 graduation rate is 89.4 percent, its 2009 graduation rate of 90.1 is what counts toward coming off the list this year.
"We were on notice because [our graduation rate] dropped down a smidgen," said Principal Mark Bean. "We have 'Simply the best' written all over here. And those three words have really changed the culture."
Howard School of Academics and Technology also made AYP for the first time ever, under the state's current calculation.
"The thing is, our students are excited," said Principal Paul Smith.
He added that he still is not satisfied with Howard's scores. Although Howard students squeaked by with 24 percent of students at or above grade level in math (the benchmark was 23 percent), they still have a long way to go in reading/language arts. While 40 percent of Howard's students scored at or above grade level in reading/language arts, the state's target was 70 percent.
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