Opinion: Hamilton County Schools district TCAP scores beat statewide scores in four main subjects, but troubling racial gaps persist

Staff File Photo / Orchard Knob Middle School seventh-grade students participate in a TCAP boot camp at The Chattanoogan Hotel in 2014.

The Hamilton County Schools district accentuated the positive in its comments about the TCAP data released last week by the Tennessee Department of Education, and this year there was more positive to accentuate than there was to paper over.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that the district garnered better proficiency marks in the four general subjects of English language arts (ELA), math, science and social studies than the state, and not by a little. District students bettered the state marks by 2.4% in social studies, 2% in math, 1.6% in science and 1.5% in ELA.

And with the exception of eighth-grade math and high school United States history, district students exceeded their state counterparts or came within less than a percentage point of doing so in the 28 tested areas.

In six tested areas (fifth-grade math, high school English 2, fifth-grade science, sixth-grade social studies, fifth-grade ELA and fourth-grade math), district students were from 3% to 8.3% better than the state.

Glancing at the above results, fifth-graders during the 2022-2023 school year look like rock stars.

In assessing improvement, we would hope district scores in all 28 tested areas improved over 2021-2022, but that wasn't the case. However, they did improve in 24 of the 28 areas, falling significantly in fourth-grade science and high school U.S. history but less so in sixth-grade ELA and sixth-grade science.

More importantly, parents and the public should want to know how scores compare to 2018-2019, the last full school year before the COVID pandemic and the COVID learning losses that have been reflected in scores during subsequent years.

In truth, it's a mixed bag. The district's overall performance in math and science still hasn't caught up to its pre-COVID mark, but scores in ELA and social studies are the best of the last six testing years.

In ELA, 39.5% of district students have met or exceeded expectations; in social studies, 45.4% have. In math, 35.8% of district students met or exceeded proficiency, 2.8% off their 2018-2019 mark. In science, 44.7% of district students were deemed proficient, 7.8% lower than their 2017-2018 mark and 9.5% lower than their 2016-2017 score.

Because the scores of some minorities continue to lag behind their white counterparts in the four general subject areas, it is important to know whether those gaps are being closed.

Sad to say, for the most part, they are not.

Among Black students, they have improved their scores in math relative to white students 1% from the 2017-2018 school year to the 2022-2023 school year, but they have fallen 2.4% further back in ELA, 1.7% more in science and 2.4% more in social studies.

Hispanic students also had a slight gain of .8% relative to white students in math but fell 3.3% further behind white students in ELA, .1% in science and .1% in social studies

In the critical third-grade ELA cohort, which determines whether students will be promoted or be subject to summer school or tutoring, Black students were the only ethnic cohort to see their scores fall from last year. In the 2021-2022 school year, 20.4% were proficient — above Hispanic students for the first time — but in the just-completed year, only 19.4% were proficient. Meanwhile, Asian students improved 8.7%, white students 7.9% and Hispanic students 5.7%.

(We previously noted that overall 40.6% of district third-grade students were proficient in ELA, a high since new standards for the subject were set and particularly satisfactory for the district since it put a major emphasis on the subject post-COVID.)

A particular ELA struggle seems to be in eighth grade. Eighth-graders overall and Asian, white and Black students were less proficient in the subject during the 2022-2023 school year than they were in 2016-2017. Only Hispanics improved their level.

United States history is also a particular conundrum. TCAP scores from the 2020-2021 school year, the first following the shuttering of schools because of the pandemic, surprisingly showed major improvements from the 2018-2019 school year for all major ethnic groups. But scores for all students and for white, Black and Hispanic students have fallen sharply since.

The district, in a news release, highlighted the aforementioned third-grade ELA proficiency, the growth in the number of students exceeding expectations in many subject areas, and improvement in the scores of under-served students.

While Superintendent Dr. Justin Robertson praised "the hard work and dedication of our students and teachers reflected in this year's data," the release acknowledged "there are still areas of improvement for HCS."

Of distinct interest will be the release later this summer of the school-level TCAP scores, which will give district administration officials, teachers and parents an idea of whether individual schools are not meeting the academic mark, are standing still or are improving.

In an era where parents are examining schools more closely than ever with an eye on school choice, those scores may be telling.