Hamilton County's elementary and middle school students are underperforming compared to students across the state, but gains have been made in high school classrooms.
Relative to numbers seen statewide, there are higher percentages of Hamilton County third- through eighth-graders testing below grade level in math, science and English, according to newly released TNReady data from 2016-2017.
The results will serve as a new baseline for assessing future academic growth among elementary and middle school students, and the numbers indicate local students are lagging behind their peers.
For grades 3-8, performance on TNReady is categorized into four ranks: mastered grade level, on grade level, approaching grade level and below grade level.
While TNReady has a category designated for "below grade level" scores, students who are "approaching grade level," also are still technically below grade level, albeit closer. Only students who score in the top two categories are considered to be meeting or exceeding expectations.
In math, 27.8 percent of Hamilton County elementary and middle school students scored below grade level compared to only 25.9 percent of Tennessee students overall. Another 33.8 percent of the district's students are approaching grade level compared to 36.1 percent for the state.
The story is similar for other subjects.
Only 31.8 percent of Hamilton County students scored on track or better in English language arts, compared with 33.8 percent of students statewide. More than half of Hamilton County students are meeting expectations in science, but 20.3 percent of students tested in the lowest category — 2.5 percent more than the state number.
Justin Robertson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the Hamilton County Department of Education, said the TNReady results can help direct the district.
"The 3-8 achievement results for 2017 set a new baseline for Hamilton County due to more demanding standards and a more rigorous assessment," he said in an emailed statement.
"In closely examining these results, school leaders and teachers have positive data points to celebrate. However, we are aware that we must urgently address areas of growth and remain focused on levers that will move student learning forward and ensure every student will be post-secondary ready."
Local minority students also received lower scores than not only their peers in Hamilton County classrooms, but minority students across Tennessee. This year's scores show 46.3 percent of black students in Hamilton County were in the lowest category in math, 39.6 percent tested below grade level in English language arts and 36.7 tested below in science.
At the other end of the scale, fewer blacks and Hispanics in Hamilton County actually tested at or above grade level. Those students across the state also tested disproportionately below grade level compared to other ethnicities, but state numbers for the percentages of students in that category are still lower than those seen in Hamilton County.
With this year's results showing that roughly only one-third of the state's middle and elementary students are considered proficient in English and 38 percent are considered to be at grade level in math, the Tennessee Department of Education noted TNReady "is a more rigorous assessment that is aligned to Tennessee's academic standards."
"We continue to be incredibly proud of the work our educators and students are doing each day, and TNReady provides us with one key feedback loop that we all can use to provide every student in Tennessee with a high-quality education," Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in the release.
This year's scores offer a more comprehensive picture of growth standards for high schools because this is the second year those schools have gone through TNReady. Results can be compared with last year to highlight progress, or lack thereof, in every subject and demographic.
As opposed to the lower grades, TNReady high school scores are a mixed bag of significant progress in some subjects and continued or worsening underperformance in other areas.
Hamilton County schools boosted scores in English I, II and III and saw a 9-10 percent decrease in the portion of students testing in the lowest category in all three classes. The upward shift bumped Hamilton County students to be at or above the percentage of students statewide who are meeting expectations in those subjects.
The district also saw gains in certain classes like geometry and chemistry, which increased to 22 percent and 33.7 percent of students testing at or above grade level, respectively.
However, those numbers are still under what is being seen statewide — 25.8 percent of Tennessee students are at or above grade level in geometry and 41.2 percent are at or above grade level in chemistry.
The prognosis is bleak in other subjects, as well. While the district's students showed gains in Algebra I, cutting the number of students performing below grade level from 75.2 percent last year to 68.2 percent this year, 56.8 percent of students statewide scored in that range.
Overall, 15.1 percent of Tennessee students showed they were on track or had mastery of Algebra 1, but only 8.2 percent of students in Hamilton County tested that well.
U.S. history scores improved from last year statewide with 30.8 percent of students demonstrating they were at or above grade level, but Hamilton County actually backslid slightly, dropping to a rate of 21.7 percent of students showing the same performance level.
The new results come a week after state officials announced that nearly 10,000 tests across the state had been scored incorrectly. Local school officials confirmed the error affected students at three Hamilton County schools and three Bradley County schools.
And while this is the second year high schoolers have taken the test, the state canceled TNReady testing last school year for younger students because Measurement Inc., the vendor that developed it, failed to deliver testing materials in time. This year, Hamilton County didn't receive raw scores in time to include them in final report cards.
TNReady replaced the old TCAP test and has a greater focus on problem solving, critical thinking and writing skills. Families also receive redesigned score reports that state officials say will help pinpoint students' strengths and weaknesses.
The Tennessee Department of Education noted this year's test results show similar performances on exams like the National Assessment of Education Progress and the ACT.
Ten years ago, a large disparity existed between what those tests showed and what TCAP results showed. TCAP performances indicated 90 percent of Tennessee students were proficient in math and reading, while other benchmarks put the number closer to 20 or 30 percent.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.
Percentage of 3rd-8th grade students at or above grade level:
› English language arts: 31.8
› Math: 38.4
› Science: 54.5
› English language arts: 33.8
› Math: 38
› Science: 58.5
Percentage of high school students at or above grade level:
› HS English: 30.5
› HS Math: 16.3
› HS Science: 45.6
› U.S. History: 21.7
› HS English: 34.3
› HS Math: 21.5
› HS Science: 51
› U.S. History: 30.8