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

by Samantha West —

Tennessee’s second set of pandemic test scores 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 percent of Tennessee students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in math this school year, according to Tuesday’s data, compared with about 25 percent during the 2020-21 school year. And about 36 percent of students were considered proficient in English language arts – a 7-percentage-point rise from last year.

Schools across the state also saw a slight improvement in science, with about 40 percent 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 percent of high school students and 43 percent of middle schoolers meeting or exceeding expectations this year, compared with 33 percent and 36 percent, 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 percent of students with disabilities, 21 percent of Hispanic students, 13 percent of Black students and 14 percent of students from low-income families met or exceeded grade-level expectations. English language arts was the same story, with 8 percent of students with disabilities, a quarter of Hispanic students, 20 percent of Black students and 19 percent of economically disadvantaged students considered proficient.

English language learners made the smallest gains of any student demographic group this year. Just 15 percent of ELL students were considered on grade level in both math and English language arts this year – not much different from 13 percent and 12 percent, 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. 

In response to the grim results of 2021, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration took aggressive steps to accelerate learning, starting with its push to keep instruction in person after COVID safety concerns prompted many schools to shift to remote and hybrid models.

Summer learning programs 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.

The release of statewide data under testing vendor Pearson came about six weeks earlier than in recent years. 

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

TCAP Tension: Anxiously awaiting those results!