Students in Hamilton County tested below the state average, and poor students here are slipping even further behind, according to test results released Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Education.
This year's TCAP scores place Hamilton County below the state average in nine of the 10 tested categories by as many as 16.7 percentage points. The scores show that students here made gains over last year's scores in only five of the 10 areas of testing, and economically disadvantaged students — any student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch — continued to receive lower test scores overall.
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TCAP Hamilton County 2015
Hamilton County TCAP scores
Percentage of students who tested proficient or advanced.
Grades 9 through 12
Algebra I - Hamilton, 48.9; State average, 65.6
Algebra II - Ham., 43.6; State, 54.2
Biology I - Ham., 57.6; State, 65.2
Chemistry - Ham., 31.2; State, 44.2
English I - Ham., 67.6; State, 71.8
English II - Ham., 59.8; State, 64.8
English III - Ham., 33.1; State, 41.7
Grades 3 through 8
Math - Hamilton, 56.7; State average, 55.6
Reading/Language Arts - Ham., 44.8; State, 48.4
Science - Ham., 59.7; State, 64.5
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
The standardized test called TCAP — Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program — is given annually to students across the state as a means of tracking progress.
Hamilton County Assistant Superintendent Robert Sharpe said these scores may not have increased from last year, but they remain ahead of where the district was when the TCAPs were introduced in 2011.
"We are obviously not where we want to be, but we do feel that we are making progress overall as a district," Sharpe said. " We use these scores to shape future work and the direction we're headed. It's a process."
Students in grades 3 through 8 made gains in math across the district, and scores remained relatively flat in science. In reading and language arts the number of students who earned a score of proficient or advanced decreased by 2.1 percentage points from last year to 44.8 percent.
"We're still struggling with reading, but it's [a problem] across the state," said Kirk Kelly, director of testing and accountability for the school system.
Statewide reading scores show students in the lower grades did not perform as well as other years, as the state average for students fell to the lowest rate since 2012 — 48.4 percent.
High school students in Hamilton County made gains over last year's results in English II and III, algebra II and chemistry. Even though scores made a leap of 5.7 percentage points in chemistry, 68.8 percent of students tested were found to be basic or below basic.
Students did not perform as well as last year on biology I, with only 57.6 percent of students testing proficient or advanced, down from 61.4 percent last year. In English I, 67.6 percent of students tested proficient or advanced, the highest level of any of the 10 categories tested, but still below the state average of 71.8 percent.
Algebra I test scores were also down this year, as only 48.9 percent of students completed the test as proficient or advanced. But Kelly said that number can be misleading because many top students in the county take that course during eighth grade and their scores, which would typically be higher, are not included in this calculation.
The TCAP data released also tracks the testing gaps between particular demographic groups.
The gap between students with disabilities and their peers increased this year, but Kelly said this was not a surprise, since this was the first year that students with disabilities took the same test as everyone else.
The gap closed in most subjects for black, Hispanic and Native American students, but students who come from economically disadvantaged homes continued to fall farther behind.
The state would like to see districts reduce these gaps between subgroups by 6.25 percent, Kelly said. And this did not happen in any of the areas tested.
"Reducing these gaps is one of our biggest struggles," Kelly said.
Both Kelly and Sharpe said those scores are taken into account when making curriculum decisions and as a tool to identify areas that need increased attention at individual schools or on the district level.
School board member Jonathan Welch said he had only been able to glance over the scores Wednesday morning, since he and the other board members had not been given a copy in advance. He wanted to wait to comment until he had time to go over the scores more thoroughly. Superintendent Rick Smith did not return a call seeking comment.
Carline Nord, director of education and youth initiatives at the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, said she is confident that the gaps can be closed.
She believes a more holistic approach is needed, one that does not just focus on children at their desks inside a classroom, but one that takes into account what economically disadvantaged students face at home and the effects of generational poverty.
"Where we are here in Hamilton County we need to know where our students come from," Nord said. "You basically need to teach the whole family — not just the child — because so much learning takes place at home."
County Commissioner Tim Boyd, chairman of the education committee, said the TCAP scores overall are "disappointing" and represent "a failing system."
"If TCAP scores were profit margins, and the profit margin is constantly trending down, you have to make changes," he said.
Boyd said he wants to see cost-effective solutions implemented to improve test scores. He would like to see former educators removed from administrative positions with the school district and voted off the school board, because he does not think they are business-minded. He also wants teachers' pay to be directly correlated with their students' performance on these tests.
Dr. Elenora Woods, president of the local NAACP, said the schools with fewer poor students have an easier time raising money because families can afford to make donations, participate in fundraisers or pay school fees.
"We are selfish in this community," Woods said. " Schools aren't integrated."
Woods believes that by forcing schools to be more economically integrated the funding will be more equitable.
"Don't blame these test scores on the kids," she said. "It's not kids' fault that they were born into poverty and into these environments."
Woods said it is everyone in the city's obligation to guarantee that each student's test scores increase.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.