Tennessee earns mostly flat scores on Nation’s Report Card but climbs national rankings anyway

Tennessee elementary and middle school students improved or held steady on national tests this year while scores in many other states fell, lifting the Volunteer State’s national rankings to solidly in the middle of the pack, according to results released on Tuesday.

The state’s fourth-graders recovered losses from two years ago in math and maintained their reading scores. Meanwhile, eighth-grade scores in both subjects were up slightly but statistically flat for a third straight testing year going back to 2015 under the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP. The exam is given every two years to provide a snapshot of U.S. student achievement for the Nation’s Report Card.

With the showing, Tennessee defied national downward trends and edged closer to — but still fell short of — its ambitious goal of moving into the top half of states by 2019 under the strategic education plan developed five years ago under former Gov. Bill Haslam. 

Tennessee jumped from 34th to 25th in fourth-grade math and moved up three spots to 31st in fourth-grade reading, according to calculations provided by the state education department. For eighth-graders, Tennessee now ranks 30th in both reading and math, up from 38th and 35th, respectively.

The upward trajectory was notable, even though the climb was due more to declines in other states than rising scores in Tennessee. Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn downplayed the improvement and noted that NAEP officials discourage using the results to set a national pecking order.

“The big headline for us right now is that we didn’t see significant change on the Nation’s Report Card. Like most states, we were relatively flat,” Schwinn said.

“We are very proud of how far we’ve come, but we know it’s not far enough,” she added during a call with reporters on Tuesday before the scores were released publicly.

NAEP is administered by the federal government to a nationally representative sample of students in every state and many major cities. The results allow comparisons across states and is an important marker for showing how students are doing over time. Under Haslam’s eight-year administration, Tennessee closely tracked its national rankings after vaulting from the 40s to the 30s in 2013, when outsized gains earned it the title as the nation’s fastest-improving state. 

Schwinn, who took the helm in February under Gov. Bill Lee, emphasized that Tennessee has not matched that dramatic growth since. 

While 17 states saw their elementary reading scores decrease in 2019 and 31 had a drop for middle schools, the commissioner said Tennessee’s distinction of not backsliding was not a cause for celebration when only a third of its fourth-graders are reading on grade level.

“If I’m a parent, I’m not necessarily thinking that flat is positive,” she said. “I’m thinking that flat is flat.”

Schwinn noted that Tennessee’s improvement in elementary math regained ground from a 2017 decline and said part of the state’s focus now is to improve scores among historically underserved student groups who continue to lag significantly.

“If we’re looking at proficiency by student group over time, the large increase in 2013 was largely from our white and non-low income students,” she said, calling for more support for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

Rural students also need more attention, said Schwinn, whose boss is a business owner and farmer who pledged on the campaign trail to be more attentive to rural Tennessee, where a third of the state’s 1 million public school students are educated.

Report: Tennessee’s rural schools overlooked amid urban focus

“When we look at our suburban and urban students, we know that those students accounted for much of the 2013 growth, but our rural [scores] have remained relatively unchanged,” she said.

Instead of national or regional rankings, Schwinn said she’s more interested in how Tennessee’s performance compares with states that are similar economically and demographically — for instance, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, North Carolina, and Kentucky.

“When we look at the performance of those peer states, what we see is that Tennessee is generally lower performing,” she said.

The commissioner said a bright spot is that Tennessee’s NAEP results showed the same level of proficiency as the most recent state-administered tests for the second straight testing year. That consistency showed that Tennessee has closed the “honesty gap” on reporting how its students are performing from 2007, when it received an “F” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for not being truthful about the lack of rigor on state tests. The failing grade spurred Tennessee to make major changes to its academic standards and testing program, as well as overhaul its systems for holding students, educators, and schools accountable.

Schwinn also praised the math performance of Memphis students who participated in a special NAEP assessment for 27 urban districts. The average score of Memphis eighth-grade students increased by 8 points, making Shelby County Schools one of four districts to improve in that subject and grade.

Below are tweets about this year’s NAEP scores from Tennessee’s two previous education commissioners.