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Staff file photo / Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn is pictured on Thursday, March 7, 2019, in the Hamilton County Schools Board Room in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Tennessee students' combined scores across all grade levels declined 5 percentage points, from 36% in 2019 to 31% this year, according to new data released Monday by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Among students who took the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test at the end of the 2020-'21 academic year, students who are economically disadvantaged, students in urban and suburban areas, English learners and students of color saw the most significant declines in scores compared to previous years.

Most of these groups are strongly represented in the Hamilton County Schools system: 47.6% of students are Black, Hispanic or Native American, 33.7% are economically disadvantaged and 6.9% are English language learners, according to the Tennessee Department of Education profile of the district.

TCAP scores declined in all four subject areas — English language arts (ELA), math, science and social studies. While drops in proficiency were anticipated due to the pandemic, Gov. Bill Lee and education commissioner Penny Schwinn said during a Monday news conference that the declines were not as severe as they could have been.

"This is the first time we've had full statewide data on students regarding their achievement since the pandemic began, and what we've seen is what we expected," Lee said.

The data divide scores into four sections: mastered grade level, on track (meets) grade level, approaching grade level and below grade level. Students that fall in the mastered and on track categories are considered proficient.

Social studies proficiency decreased by the fewest percentage points of all subjects compared to last year, from 39% proficiency in 2019 to 36% in 2021. The subject also saw an increase in proficiency from 2019 among high schoolers by 4 percentage points.

Math scores dropped most significantly among the subjects, with middle school math scores in the "below" category increasing from 26% in 2019 to 40% this year. In science, scores saw greater increases in the "approaching" and "on track" categories, while the "below" category remained steady.

The department identified early literacy and middle school math as priority areas. Early literacy programs such as the at-home decodable booklets and book deliveries from the Governor's Early Literacy Foundation provided reading materials to students across the state this summer.

The programs address literacy among grades K-2, with third grade serving as a critical checkpoint in reading proficiency. In the optional English language arts TCAP exam, 32% of second graders who took the exam in 2019 scored in the mastered or on track categories, compared to 21% this year. For third graders, 32% scored proficiently in the English language arts TCAP, compared to 38% in 2019.

"It is really hard to teach a child to read, it's really hard to teach a child to read in the pandemic," Schwinn said.

Solutions to address this area include increased high-dosage tutoring and strategic use of federal coronavirus relief money. The department received approval on its state spending plan for a third round of federal funding last month, which includes $120.7 million for the Literacy Success Act and Reading360 program.

TCAP testing was suspended in spring 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. The department will release district-level TCAP results on Aug. 11.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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