Staff File Photo / Comprehensive test scores at Brainerd High School have been slow to improve.

When the Tennessee Department of Education released district scores from 2021 TCAP tests last month, Hamilton County education officials quickly acknowledged an across-the-board drop in student learning.

However, they also applauded the huge number of schools exceeding growth standards and the number of schools increasing achievement. Officials crowed that they had cemented their status as the fastest-growing district in the state.

Fair enough.

Nevertheless, measuring how much a school grows or whether one receives a reward status sometimes masks the reality of the school's true situation.

A look at performance levels of the district's high schools, where the last opportunity exists for students to prepare for college and career, indicates how much effect the global pandemic has had.

Not one of the district's 20 listed high schools improved on academic achievement from 2019, according to the 2021 state report card released last week. (No comprehensive tests were taken in 2020 due to COVID-19.)

The drops from 2019 ranged from 1.5% at Brainerd High School, which had only a 5.3% success rate (representing the percentage of students who scored "on-track" or "mastered" on annual state tests), to 13.4% at Hamilton County Collegiate, which maintained the district's highest success rate at 72.1%.

Several of the district's other top performing schools suffered double-digit or near double-digit drops, including 12.8% at Chattanooga High School for the Creative Arts (CCA), 12.4% at East Hamilton, 11.4% at Soddy-Daisy and 9.4% at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences (CSAS).

Two other top performing schools, Signal Mountain and STEM School, held their drops to 6.5% and 3.4%, respectively.

Eight high schools — Brainerd, CCA, CSAS, Hamilton County Collegiate, Lookout Valley, Ivy Academy, Signal Mountain and Tyner — retreated to lower scores than they had in 2018.

Fewer than 5.3% of the students at Brainerd, The Howard School and Tyner scored "on track" or "mastered" on the state tests.

Eight schools — Brainerd, Central, East Ridge, Hixson, Howard, Ooltewah, Red Bank and STEM School — held their drops from 2019 to less than 5%.

The state report card also gives high schools "Ready Graduate" scores, which measure whether students are ready for college and careers and whether the percentage of students who are ready is improving from one year to the next.

The "Ready Graduate" marks contradict the drop in comprehensive test scores for some high schools from 2019 to 2021, perhaps indicating the 2021 tests scores were an aberration.

Signal Mountain (87.2%), CCA (81.8%), STEM School (79.7%) and CSAS (70.5) had the district's highest "Ready Graduate" marks, with the next school nearly 15 percentage points lower.

Five schools — CSAS, East Ridge, Red Bank, Signal Mountain and Soddy-Daisy — all had three-year upward trajectories in their "Ready Graduate" scores. Unfortunately, three schools — Central, East Hamilton and Tyner — had three-year downward trajectories in their scores.

The schools with the three lowest "Ready Graduate" scores were Brainerd (15.7%), Sequoyah (9.9%) and Howard (less than 5%).

Schools, as teachers in an editorial in this space last week testified in a state survey, also dealt with absenteeism. With many students in virtual classes the first half of the year, absentee numbers grew in Hamilton County and across the state.

Not surprisingly, Brainerd and Howard, which had low TCAP scores and low "Ready Graduate" marks, had the district's highest rates of chronic absenteeism with 69.3% and 54.8% of their students, respectively.

Five additional schools — Central (28.6%), East Ridge (37.2%), Red Bank (29.9%), Sequoyah (35.1%) and Tyner (32.8%) — all reported at least a quarter of their students chronically absent during the year.

Brainerd, Central, East Ridge, Howard, Lookout Valley, Red Bank and Tyner all had at least 10% increases in chronic absenteeism in 2020-2021 over the shortened 2019-2020 school year.

Perhaps indicating the seriousness of the students and the dedication of parents or guardians, three schools — CCA, Ivy Academy and Sale Creek — all had decreases in chronic absenteeism in 2020-2021.

Six schools — Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, CCA, CSAS, Hamilton County Collegiate, Signal Mountain and STEM School — had chronic absenteeism of less than 10%.

A year's time — and, we hope, the disappearance of COVID-19 — should give district officials more information as to whether the academic score drops and the increased chronic absenteeism were a departure from the norm. What remains clear, though, is scores at Brainerd, Howard and Tyner have remained low and have been unable to make the same strides as other schools in our "fastest-improving district."

We hope our district officials and the next superintendent will have some fresh eyes for this challenge.