Overall results for Georgia and Tennessee on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress:
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, U.S. Department of Education
Tennessee students fell to near the bottom ranks in math and reading performance on a national test that compares school achievement across states.
Results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, released last week, show no statistically significant change in Tennessee's scores since the last tests in 2009. But other states -- including Georgia -- made significant gains in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, the subjects tested this year.
Progress from other states lowered Tennessee's rankings:
• From 45th to 46th in the nation in fourth-grade math
• From 39th to 41st in fourth-grade reading
• From 43rd to 45th in eighth-grade math
• From 34th to 41st in eighth-grade reading.
The failure to improve on these tests comes amid an unprecedented push to reform public education in Tennessee. The Legislature and the Tennessee Department of Education have sought to improve student performance, though substantive gains have yet to be realized.
Tennessee's declining status on NAEP should serve as a call to action, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said.
"The reality is that in today's world, if you stand still, you get passed," he said in a statement last week. "It's not good enough to not go backward, or improve only slightly -- we want to be the fastest-improving state in the nation."
The results show Tennessee is doing a worse job than some of its neighbors at increasing learning among poor students. Impoverished students in Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and North Carolina scored higher in every tested area than their Tennessee counterparts.
NAEP, otherwise known as "The Nation's Report Card," is considered one of the best comparative measures of student achievement because all 50 states participate. It's more useful in national comparisons than state assessments, which vary among states.
The test is given to a random sample of students. In Hamilton County, only about a dozen schools were tested this year.
"It's really the only thing we have out there for those grades that's a national test," said Kirk Kelley, director of accountability and testing for Hamilton County Schools. "It's really the best comparison."
Kelley suspects Tennessee's stagnant performance could have something to do with state assessments. Tennessee recently revamped its tests, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, and its teaching standards.
But Kelley said the tests still don't do a good job of telling teachers where their students are falling short -- they see only the numerical results. That means they can't adjust their teaching based on test results.
"It's great for accountability, probably one of the best in the nation," Kelley said of the TCAP. "But it's not that good for instruction and when you're trying to make adjustments in teaching."
Kelley said the state's performance on NAEP shows there's more work to be done.
"From a positive standpoint, we didn't lose any ground. But we didn't gain any ground," he said. "We basically stayed where we were. We need to be making some better progress."
The NAEP scores are just the latest in a series of disappointing results for Tennessee.
The latest TCAP results show that about 51 percent of Tennessee's K-8 students are proficient or advanced in reading, while only about 34 percent reach the same mark in math. Earlier this year, Tennessee high school students finished 49th in the nation on the ACT, the most commonly used college entrance exam, with an average score of 19.5.
While all those measures could look disheartening, Kelley said it will take some time for reform efforts to show results. The state is implementing tougher standards for teaching and increasing the TCAP's rigor. Last spring's legislative reform package also included changes in teacher tenure laws and new teacher evaluations.
"We're making improvements," Kelley said. "But it's probably going to take this year and next."
Georgia students made gains in three of the four areas tested on the most recent NAEP exam.
The state currently ranks:
• 36th in fourth-grade math
• 43rd in eighth-grade math
• 29th in fourth-grade reading
• 35th in eighth-grade reading.
Rankings for 2009 were unavailable, though Georgia was among only a few states to see significant increases in test scores this year. Georgia's average fourth-grade reading score of 221 was one point above the national average of 220. Tennessee finished with an average score of 215.
"The fact that our students showed improvement on a test with a nationally set cut score is encouraging and demonstrates that Georgia's students are making great strides in competing with the rest of the nation," state Schools Superintendent John Barge said.