Tennessee State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, on Wednesday touted improvements in the state's standardized test scores, which indicated that student proficiency in English and math regained ground after dipping at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"That's the good news," he said at Clear Creek Church of Christ to members of the group Friends of Hixson. "The bad news is that our pre-pandemic reading levels were not great to begin with, but the fact that our school systems have made what I would consider a Herculean effort to get us back to where we were pre-pandemic is pretty phenomenal."
The Tennessee Department of Education released state-level results on Tuesday for the 2022 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. According to the data, 36% of Tennessee students either exceeded or met grade-level expectations in English language arts, up from 29% in 2021 and 35% in 2019.
Math scores also saw an improvement, with 30% of students meeting or exceeding expectations in 2022 compared to 25% in 2021. However, a larger proportion, 37%, reached that threshold in 2019 and in 2018, with 33%.
With the pandemic spurring a reliance on remote education, Watson said, officials were concerned about the amount of learning loss students would experience while outside the classroom, particularly in reading and math.
Watson said focused efforts by the state, such as summer reading labs, were among the factors that played a role in the recovery. Tennessee also funneled a significant amount of federal dollars into education, he said.
"But most importantly, I think you'll see when the district data comes out in July ... that school systems that worked really hard to keep kids in the classroom recovered at a much faster rate," he said, estimating that Hamilton County public schools spent about 90% of their time learning in person. "I think when our district-level data comes out, it's going to show that that made a significant difference."
Watson added that he expects the state's new education funding formula will make a significant difference in funding for Hamilton County Schools.
The Tennessee Department of Education projects that the district will get $397 million in fiscal year 2024, $47 million more than it is receiving this academic year.
The funding model will inject a one-time allotment of $250 million in statewide education spending this fall and $750 million in recurring funds in fiscal year 2023 and 2024.
The new approach provides districts with a baseline of $6,860 per student and then adds more funding based on individual student needs, like if they come from a low-income background or have a disability. That funding follows them if they go to a new district.
Watson said the formula will also give principals more flexibility to operate their schools as they see fit.
"We will not get it right the first time we do it, OK?" he said about the formula. "When you start hearing about challenges, that's normal.
"There are things we will tweak over the next three to five years to get it the way we want it. But, at the end of the day, we think it will serve at the local level because it focuses on the individual needs of the individual child."
Speaking about workforce needs, Watson said one problem facing Tennessee is that it doesn't have enough people to meet the employment requirements of businesses wanting to move here.
Watson said he met with representatives from Volkswagen during the legislative session, and they wanted to know what state leaders were doing to attract more people to Tennessee.
"They said we want to add another shift, and we don't have enough people," Watson said. "And it's not that we don't have the skilled people or the unskilled people, we don't have enough people."