Cooper: Hamilton County Schools writes a new headline with continued improving test scores

Staff Photo By Troy Stolt / Dr. Nakia Towns, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, speaks during a presentation about test scores for the 2020-2021 school year at Woodmore Elementary School last month.

The excitement in the voice of Dr. Nakia Towns, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, was unmistakeable. She was clear that she wanted another headline.

In revealing information about the district's 2020-2021 school-level standardized test scores to Times Free Press reporters and editors Wednesday, she showed a 2016 newspaper front page in which a graphic used sharpened pencils to make a point about the lack of local teacher effectiveness.

Towns had something much better to report.

Cementing the county's status as the fastest-improving district in the state were TVASS numbers that showed 67 Hamilton County schools met or exceeded growth standards (nine more than in 2016-2017); 34 schools received designations of distinction for their reward school status, their growth or both; 27 schools increased achievement from 2019 (tests weren't taken in 2020); and 82% of teachers met or exceeded the growth standard (19% more than in 2016-2017).

In addition, two of the district's nine priority schools (Clifton Hills and Woodmore elementaries) - designated by scores in the lowest 5% in the state - have exited the state priority schools list. Indeed, those two schools improved so much that both are now on par with about a third of schools in the state in overall performance.

With the 2021 numbers now available, district officials also could show the trajectory of scores from 2016-2017, the year which immediately preceded the hiring of Dr. Bryan Johnson as superintendent.

In 2016-2017, using composite scores and scores in five key subject areas, Hamilton County students system-wide and in four student groupings achieved growth scores of 1 - the lowest score available - in 22 of 29 sectors. In 2020-2021, they scored growth scores of 5 - the highest available - in 20 of 20 sectors. Two categories, science and social studies, were not included as composite scores by the state in 2020-2021.

Eleven schools - Allen, Alpine Crest, Apison, Lookout Mountain, Middle Valley, Ooltewah and Thrasher elementaries, Wallace A. Smith Middle, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, Collegiate High and STEM School - were both reward schools (top 5% in achievement) and Level 5 (highest level of growth) schools.

Fueling some of that growth - among the 27 schools with increased achievement - were nine schools that showed more than 5% improvement in one or more areas.

Leading that parade were the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences lower school that increased its English/language arts (ELA) score 13.3%, Battle Academy, which increased its ELA 12.1%, Snow Hill Elementary, which raised its ELA score 9.4%, and Woodmore Elementary, which improved its math score 9.1%

Last month, it had been announced that Hamilton County outperformed the state in 24 of 28 achievement areas (up from three of 21 in 2016-2017), and bettered the state by 5% or more in five of those areas.

In the same previous announcement, it was noted that while remote learning during COVID-19 contributed to drops in proficiency all across the state, our local district didn't see as much of a fall-off (only 2.5% in ELA compared to 5% across the state and 8% in math compared to 12% across the state).

Among all Hamilton County students, students who opted for learning from home during the 2020-2021 year showed lower achievement in general, local officials said, but white, Asian and English language learners did not lose ground.

Towns and other district leaders also acknowledged that while the 2021 results are stellar, hard work is still ahead. ACT English, eighth-grade math and eighth-grade science improvement scores remain at the lowest level, and overall composite scores at priority high schools Brainerd and Howard are still stubbornly low.

When Johnson - who recently left the profession for a job at a logistics company - arrived in 2017, the district was dis-spirited, had seen years of languishing test scores, was in the midst of several lawsuits and could not agree on the type of leader it needed.

"The district [now] is in a completely different place," said Towns, who joined the administration not long after Johnson's arrival.

She said the administration concentrated its efforts toward improvement over the last four years on "instructional excellence" and "what we do to support teachers." Now, she said, "I'd put our team against any one in the state."

Towns, in her virtual presentation to the newspaper, showed a photograph of a page saved from what looked like an administration strategy session about five-year goals shortly after Johnson's arrival. On one of the pages were the words "proving itself to be the fastest improving district the last five years."

The district is in the midst of doing just that. And we hope that will be the trajectory for the future.

"The community deserves to know [the district's progress]," Towns said. "It deserves to be told and told well. We want there to be confidence for the community of the results. It's real, and it's based on the hard work of our team."