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Tennessee's scores held steady this year on the Nation's Report Card, and state officials say the overall progress made by students since 2011 allows the Volunteer State to maintain the title of most improved.

According to a new federal report released today, Tennessee's fourth- and eighth-graders scored near average in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP.

"There is no state that has improved as much as we have, and second place isn't close," Gov. Bill Haslam said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Tennessee has remained near the bottom of national academic rankings, and state officials set a lofty goal in 2011 of becoming the state to see the most academic improvement by 2015.

In 2013, the goal already was met and Tennessee was praised for having the most point-gain increase of any state on NAEP, a test administered to a random student population every two years.

Haslam said this year's scores "solidify and improve on the big gains" previously seen. "A new set of fourth- and eighth-graders proved that the gains we made in 2013 were real."

NAEP is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, an independent research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It is regarded by many experts as one of the best comparative measures of student achievement.

The NAEP assessment does not perfectly align with state standards or Common Core. Instead, this one-hour test is intended to offer a national benchmark and a way to track progress.

NAEP Results:

Students take a test and receive a score out of 500. Below are the state averages compared to national averages.

TENNESSEE

Math Scores/National Average:

Fourth Grade: 241/240

Eighth Grade: 278/281

Reading Scores:

Fourth Grade: 219/221

Eighth Grade: 265/264

GEORGIA

Math Scores:

Fourth Grade: 236/240

Eighth Grade: 279/281

Reading Scores:

Fourth Grade: 222/221

Eighth Grade: 262/264

ALABAMA

Math Scores:

Fourth Grade: 231/240

Eighth Grade: 267/281

Reading Scores:

Fourth Grade: 217/221

Eighth Grade: 259/264

Source: NAEP website

The NAEP exam is administered to a sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students in all 50 states and a handful of large urban school districts, providing a national comparison of academic success. The assessment remains essentially the same each year so that academic progress can be traced over time.

Nationally, students' reading scores remained fairly flat this year in fourth grade and were two points lower in eighth grade compared to 2013. Math scores in both fourth and eighth grade dropped by one and two points, respectively, since 2013.

Overall, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Tuesday, the nation has seen increase from when the test was first administered in the early 1990s. Duncan said that no one should be alarmed by this year's slight dip.

Duncan encouraged people not to jump to conclusions about the lower scores, saying "progress will never be quick or linear." He applauded the work of educators nationwide and the courage of many states to adopt new higher academic standards.

"Big change never happens overnight, this is the ultimate long-term strategy," he said.

Georgia scored near Tennessee in every category, both states landing scores right near average. Alabama lagged behind Tennessee and Georgia in each test by between five and 11 points.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tennessee is now ranked 35th nationally when all four tested subjects are considered, and boasted that it is one of 18 states to not experience a significant loss in any of the four tested subjects.

Weeks ago, state officials announced the goal of breaking into the top-half of national rankings by 2019, a position Tennessee has never held on the list.

McQueen touted Tennessee's ranking of 25th in fourth grade math, which is the first time the Volunteer state has ever been ranked in the top-half of states on a NAEP assessment. Tennessee also ranked 37th in eighth-grade math; 36th in fourth-grade reading, and eighth-grade reading the state is 30th, according to McQueen.

The only dip in score Tennessee saw was in fourth-grade reading, which was seven points higher in 2013. McQueen said this shows "the urgency to strengthen [the state's] literacy instruction."

McQueen said she is proud of how students have made academic progress that many thought they never would.

"Today's news reaffirms that Tennessee's teachers and leaders are doing work that is truly working," McQueen said.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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