Tennessee Students Lead Nation In Academic Growth - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Tennessee Students Lead Nation In Academic Growth

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MT. JULIET, Tenn. (AP/NewsChannel 5) – A new report shows Tennessee students are leading the nation in academic growth.

Commonly known as "The Nation's Report Card," the National Assessment of Educational Progress assesses students in fourth and eighth grade reading and math every two years. The report released Thursday shows Tennessee students had the largest growth of any state from 2011-2013, with a 22-point growth across all subject areas. The next closest state in growth was Indiana with 15.

Governor Bill Haslam announced Thursday that Tennessee had the largest academic growth of any state in a single testing cycle since the NAEP started nationwide assessments 10 years ago.

"We literally blew away the other states when it comes to education results," Governor Bill Haslam (R-Tennessee) said. "If you would've asked me the one goal I'd most like to see happen while I was Governor it would be this."

For fourth-grade students, Tennessee went from 46th to 37th in math and from 41st to 31st in reading.

"It's incredibly gratifying to see the gains for African American students," Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said. "And it's incredibly gratifying to see us get these gains while we're also increasing the number of special education kids who are taking the test. So I feel really passionate about that piece as well."

State officials said the improvement is partially due to education reforms over the last few years including a tougher teacher evaluation process.

"These historic gains are a result of hard work by a lot of people across Tennessee: our teachers, students, principals, superintendents, parents, lawmakers, school board members, business leaders, and many others," said Haslam. "As a state we've come together to make education a top priority."

The announcement was made from West Wilson Middle School in Mt. Juliet, and students, staff and faculty took part. Other speakers included former governor Phil Bredesen and State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

Nationally, the report found that today's fourth and eighth graders are doing better than their predecessors in math and reading, but even with record scores, it's too early to celebrate.

The vast majority of the students still are not demonstrating solid academic performance in either subject, according to the 2013 Nation's Report Card.

Just 42 percent of fourth graders and 35 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficient level in math. In reading, 35 percent of fourth graders and 36 percent of eighth graders hit that mark.

Also, white students again outperformed their Hispanic and African-American counterparts, reinforcing just how tough it is to close achievement gaps among racial groups despite years of focus on the problem.

Still, the nation's school kids do better today on the test than they did in the early 1990s, when such tracking started, with more improvement in math than in reading. Students of all races have shown improvement over the years.

Tennessee and the District of Columbia, which have both launched high-profile efforts to strengthen education by improving teacher evaluations and by other measures, showed across-the-board growth on the test compared to 2011, likely stoking more debate. Only the Defense Department schools also saw gains in both grade levels and subjects.

Specifically pointing to Tennessee, Hawaii and D.C., Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on a conference call with reporters that many of the changes seen in these states were "very, very difficult and courageous" and appear to have had an impact.

This year's results, compared to results in 2011, show average incremental gains of about one or two points on a 500-point scale in math and reading in both grades, although the one-point gain in fourth grade reading was not considered statistically significant.

"Every two years, the gains tend to be small, but over the long run they stack up," said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

Buckley said he was "heartened" by some of the results, "but there are also some areas where I'd hoped to see improvement where we didn't."

The release comes as a new era in education unfolds. President W. Bush's landmark education law No Child Left Behind, which sought to close achievement gaps among racial groups and have every student doing math and reading at grade level by 2014, has essentially been dismantled.

After Congress failed to update the law before it was due for renewal in 2007, President Barack Obama allowed states to get waivers from it if they showed they have their own plans to prepare students. Most states took him up on the offer.

In the meantime, a majority of states are rolling out Common Core State Standards with the goal of better preparing the nation's students for college or a job. The states-led standards establish benchmarks for reading and math and replace goals that varied widely from state.

Academic scholars have long debated what effects the law and other state-led reforms have had on test scores.

In Hawaii, which has also seen a concentrated effort to improve teaching quality, scores also increased with the exception of fourth grade reading. In Iowa and Washington, scores increased except in 8th grade math.

Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the biggest problem revealed in the results is the large gap that exists between the performances of students of different races.

There was a 26-point gap, for example, between how white and African American 4th graders performed on the math section. In eighth grade reading, white students outperformed Hispanic students by 21 points.

"We still have a situation where you have kids that are left behind. They aren't given the same instruction. They aren't given the same expectations as other kids," Minnich said. He said it's time for "doubling down and making sure the gaps get smaller."

Duncan said too many African-American and Hispanic children start kindergarten a year or two behind and that early childhood programs are key to leveling the playing field. Duncan and Obama have lobbied for congressional passage of a preschool-for-all program.

The test was given this year to about 377,000 fourth graders and 342,000 eighth graders. It was taken by students from public and private schools, but state-specific numbers are only from public schools.

In math, students were asked to answer questions about topics such as geometry, algebra and measurement. In reading, students were told to read passages and recall details or interpret them.

Among the other results:

-More boys than girls scored at or above the proficient level for both grades in math. In reading, more girls than boys scored at or above that mark.

-Twenty-five out of the 52 states or jurisdictions measured had a higher average score in 2013 than in 2011 in at least one subject and grade.

-Five states had a lower score than two years ago in at least one subject and grade: Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

-Hispanic students were the only racial or ethnic group that saw improvements in math scores in both fourth and eighth grades; Asian/Pacific Islanders students had the highest percentage of students performing at or above the proficient level in both math and reading.

For the full results, go to http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press/NewsChannel 5. All Rights Reserved.)

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