Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Emily Hall, 14, left, looks over books as Ephraim Johnson, middle, and Moss Lilith, right, put out more free items last week. The Chattanooga Free Store hosted the Back to School Community Day at the Highland Park Commons.

The students in Hamilton County's public schools did something most students across Tennessee couldn't do during the pandemic year of off-and-on remote schooling: They kept learning. Or at least they didn't lose much learning.

That's the initial takeaway from the results of the spring 2021 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program exams.

Hamilton County Schools outperformed the state in 24 out of 28 tested grade and subject areas on the spring TCAPs. And in five of those areas, our students bested the state by five percentage points or more.

The results among youngest students — those deemed hardest to teach unless they are in a highly structured classroom — proved even better, according to incoming interim Superintendent Nakia Towns.

"When you think about those foundational years, this kind of disruption that we had, we wondered how would our children be able to keep that academic progress [from the last several years] going, and in fact, we found that particularly in grades three through five, we outperformed the state in nine out of nine academic content areas."

Now, to be clear — and taking nothing away from our local school officials who performed yeoman's work in organizing and running the hybrid and remote learning school days — the state scores were terrible.

On the whole, statewide performance among all grade levels on the tests decreased — repeat, decreased — by 5 percentage points from spring 2019, a drop state official said they had expected due to learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state lost ground — lots of ground. But mostly our students did not, and in some areas continued making slight gains.

For instance, the state's 3rd grade English language arts proficiency — a critical measure of students' ability to read and learn on their own — nose-dived from an already low 38% to 32%. Hamilton County's 3rd grade English language arts proficiency continued its climbing trend, inching up from 35.6% in 2019 to 36.2% this spring. The same was true in math and science. In fact, our 3rd graders math proficiency, at 40.7%, exceeded the state average by almost 10 percentage points.

Granted, we clearly want to see more than 36.2% of our 3rd graders reading at grade level and more than 41.2% of them working math problems at grade level. But let's give credit where credit is due: Our youngest kids and their teachers and their parents did well this past year under very difficult circumstances.

On the whole, however, the year took a toll on all students, both in our district and in the state.

English proficiency dropped in the district overall, by 2.5 percentage points, but not as much as the 5% decline statewide.

Math proficiency among our students fell 8% from 2019, compared to a 12% drop statewide. (The district also performed below the state average in eighth grade math, and middle school math is one of the subjects education commissioner Penny Schwinn identified as a priority area across the state.)

Still, Hamilton County's trend as the fastest improving school district in the state is holding.

Our student's record this year of outperforming the state on the TCAP scores in in 24 of 28 tested areas, was only nine of 21 in the 2018-2019 school year. It was only five of 29 the year before, and only three of 21 in the 2016-17 school year.

Outgoing Superintendent Bryan Johnson told the Times Free Press on Monday that while he was surprised by the number of test areas in which the school system outperformed the state, the district should continue on an improvement trajectory going forward.

"This is what Hamilton County should be doing, and it should be doing even better," he said.

Interim Superintendent Towns nodded at that assessment and told TFP editors that in addition to teachers' hard work and dedication, community efforts helped, too. Equipping more students with technology and internet access last spring, launching the initial three-week summer learning program last year, professional development for teachers and the district's collaboration with local organizations contributed to students' strong performances compared to state averages.

"I think that it's a tale of all the foundational pieces that we have been building that when it came time to respond to a crisis, we were able to activate in a way that some communities may not have been positioned to do," she said.

They are both right, of course. It takes a village, and our village still has lots of work to do — especially as it looks as though COVID-19 will continue creating hardship.

In the meantime, we are really proud of these students, teachers, parents and school leaders who kept our youngsters learning more and faster than they have in many years.