Tennessee’s TCAP test scores show improvement

Masked high school students sit separated in rows of lab desks in a classroom.
Tennessee’s latest standardized test scores, released by the state Department of Education Tuesday, mark the start of a comeback after the pandemic caused a sharp decline last year. (RichVintage/E+/Getty Images)

Tennessee’s second set of test scores from the pandemic era improved across all subjects and grades, largely returning to pre-COVID levels. 

But historically underserved student populations — including children with disabilities, those from low-income families, and students of color — continue to lag behind their peers.

State-level results released Tuesday showed an overall increase in proficiency since 2021, when the first pandemic scores followed national trends and declined across all subjects and grades for public school students in grades 3-11.

The latest scores start Tennessee on a new trajectory for improvement based on standardized tests under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, also known as TCAP. 

The results have been highly anticipated nationally after Tennessee invested early in summer learning camps and high-dosage tutoring to try to accelerate learning after a third straight school year of COVID-related disruptions. 

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said those investments played a large role in children’s academic recovery, and she commended the hard work of local school leaders and educators.

“Our districts have been working really hard to ensure that all of our students are able to grow and to improve coming out of what has been a very challenging three years,” Schwinn said during a Tuesday morning call with reporters.

But Schwinn also acknowledged that Tennessee student achievement is not where she wants it to be. Just 30% of Tennessee students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in math this school year, according to Tuesday’s data, compared with about 25% during the 2020-21 school year. And about 36% of students were considered proficient in English language arts — a 7-percentage-point rise from last year.

“I think we all want what’s best for our students,” Schwinn said, “and so it is going to take all of us working together to continue to see the growth and improvement that we want for our students, for our schools, and for our communities.”

The release of statewide data under testing vendor Pearson came about six weeks earlier than in recent years, and follows a minor snag in mid-May that affected part of the preliminary test score data shared with districts.

Schwinn said she is “very confident” in the data released Tuesday, noting that Pearson corrected the scoring error last month within days, and that fewer than 5% of third-grade English language arts exams were affected.

District-level data, which is being reviewed by district leaders, is expected to be released in early July.

Schools across the state also saw slight improvement in science, with about 40% of students at or above grade level achievement. That’s a 2-percentage-point improvement from last year.

Social studies scores, meanwhile, continued to shoot up — as they have since 2017 — with 38% of high school students and 43% of middle schoolers meeting or exceeding expectations this year, compared with 33% and 36%, respectively, last year.

Schwinn pointed out the persistent academic disparities for students of color, children from low-income families, those with disabilities, and those learning to speak English, compared with their white peers.

In math, only 8% of students with disabilities, 21% of Hispanic students, 13% of Black students and 14% of students from low-income families met or exceeded grade level expectations. English language arts was the same story, with 8% of students with disabilities, a quarter of Hispanic students, 20% of Black students and 19% of economically disadvantaged students considered proficient.

English language learners made the slimmest gains of any student demographic group this year. Just 15% of ELL students were considered on grade level in both math and English language arts this year — not much of an improvement from 13% and 12%, respectively, in 2020-21.

Every other demographic group improved modestly in math and English language arts, according to the state.

In 2019, before the pandemic hit, Tennessee students had improved in nearly every math subject, older students showed gains in English, and more than half the schools improved in most subjects.

That progress came to an abrupt halt when COVID arrived. State standardized testing was canceled for the 2019-20 school year. Last year, tests showed significant declines across all grade levels and subjects — especially in Tennessee’s two largest districts in Memphis and Nashville, which serve the state’s most diverse populations and spent the most time with remote learning as a COVID safety precaution.

In response to those results, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration took aggressive steps to accelerate learning, starting with its push to keep instruction in person.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said this year’s results make it clear that “children learn best in the classroom.”

Summer learning programs, another state initiative to combat learning loss, are now in their second year under Tennessee’s accelerated learning law passed during a special legislative session in early 2021. A statewide tutoring program also launched, while new requirements for third-grade retention will kick in with the upcoming school year.

Schwinn said Tuesday that the state plans to continue encouraging these interventions in districts. She noted that she was surprised — and excited — to see larger-than-expected improvements in English language arts.

Most national research and experts, Schwinn said, had expected that students’ math skills would recover faster than English language arts. But in Tennessee, the opposite was true, and Schwinn credits the state’s focus on early literacy.

The results show that “even when things are challenging, when you focus and invest critically in a couple of core areas that we believe are going to be pivotal for student success, we will see growth in outcomes,” Schwinn said.

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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