At times it is very difficult to determine if you are making progress in specific situations because there can be a variety of ways to measure that success. A friend was helping me remodel a room and we had to cut a board at 164 and three-quarters inches. My friend cut the board and it was just a little bit short. I measured the board and it was only 164 inches. I was a little bit frustrated because that was our last 16-foot board. My friend said he did not understand why I was so upset because the cut was right for 164 inches or about 99.4% of the way. He argued 99.4% was just about as good as you could get, and he would be in the Hall of Fame if he hit 99.5% of the time.
In the school system, it is often difficult to measure success because there are so many variables we have to consider. We should never determine success by any one data point or simply review state testing material to determine if we have been effective. We probably need to be more focused on making sure these children have the necessary skill sets to be successful in their chosen field after high school. Students should leave our schools and be prepared for success in college, at TCAT, in the military, or in the workplace. Students should leave our schools with the essential attributes to be productive members of society who add value to our community. Those particular goals are difficult to measure because they are so complicated. However, the following is a quick summary of some common state measures.
First, we have a very strong graduation rate. Approximately 95% of our students graduated from high school in 2020. The graduation rate for the state was approximately 90%. At this point, we do not have the data for the 2021 school year because it is always a year behind. However, we have consistently been four to five percentage points ahead of the state average in terms of graduation rates.
Second, we have one of the strongest attendance rates in the state. We have averaged about a 95% student attendance rate for the last three years. Recently, we had the lowest chronic absentee rate in the entire state. Chronic absentee rates are determined by the number of students who have missed more than 10% of the school year. You want this number to be low. In 2021, we had a chronic absentee rate of 11.8% while the state average was 15.5%. It is my belief we do many things to encourage students to attend school. However, I firmly believe the primary reason that children come to school is because they want to be here.
Third, we have had a number of Reward Schools over the last several years. Many of our schools have made significant academic progress and have received state recognition for that success. Over the last three years, West Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, Manley Elementary, Fairview Elementary, John Hay Elementary, Alpha Elementary, Russellville Elementary, Whitesburg Elementary, East Ridge Middle, Lincoln Middle, and West View Middle have all received Reward School status. More than 60% of our schools have received this recognition.
Fourth, the state measures the amount of academic growth that students make through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. Each district is given a composite score (from 1 – 5) in four categories. A designation of Level 1 means there is significant evidence students made less growth than expected and a designation of Level 5 means there is significant evidence students made more growth than expected. Our district earned a score of Level 5 in each of the four main categories which were measured. This means we made the highest amount of growth in literacy, numeracy, composite, and literacy/numeracy combined that is possible. Many of our students come to us and are not on grade level. However, those students have made a tremendous amount of progress throughout the year.
Fifth, we have one of the strongest career and technical education (CTE) programs in the state. Our Education Works! program has placed 53 students in apprenticeship programs where they work half of the day and attend school the other part of the day. Currently, we are working with more than 170 students in this program. We have created dual enrollment opportunities in the areas of welding, machining, and industrial maintenance. This means students are earning both high school and college credit. We have the highest state average of students receiving an industrial certification in precision measurement instrument which is one of the nation’s most needed technical skills. We have doubled the state average percentage of students involved in work-based learning opportunities. We have created a number of valuable partnerships with local industries to place our students in their occupation of choice. The state has recognized 16 career clusters, and Hamblen County offers programs in 15 of those 16 clusters.
Sixth, we attempted to create a positive working environment for our staff. Being able to recruit and retain quality educators are essential elements in maintaining a strong educational program. Currently, our salary scale for teachers is ranked 27th out of 146 school districts. We are tied for the first place ranking in health insurance, which means our staff has access to some of the best health insurance in the state. We have a high retention rate for staff. Approximately 94% of our teachers remain in Hamblen County after they are employed. The state average for teacher retention is 90.3%.
Seventh, the state saw a 5% reduction in language arts scores in grades 3-12 and a 10% reduction in math scores in grades 3-12 on our state assessments, Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). Much of this reduction is directly related to the loss of instructional time and disruptions to the instructional program connected to the pandemic. These nation-wide reductions make it difficult to determine if we actually made progress because you would expect some reduction. However, it is important you did not fall behind more than anyone else. For example, you may have made a little progress if you only went down 2% in language arts while the state went down 5%. Conversely, you would be more concerned if you went down 8% while the state went down only 5%.
This year we looked at our state rankings to determine if we made progress. Our rationale for this comparison was that all school districts in Tennessee faced similar issues with the pandemic. We determined that we were making progress if our state rankings improved in a specific subject area and were concerned if our state rankings declined.
We saw improvements in grades 4-7 language arts testing. In fourth grade language arts, we made progress in our state rankings (73rd to 65th); fifth grade (55th to 40th); sixth grade (106th to 79th); seventh grade (105th to 56th). We lost a little ground in 3rd grade language arts (54th to 59th) and in 8th language arts (75th to 85th). Similarly, we lost some ground in English I (45th to 51st) and English II (24th to 40th).
We saw a small decrease in third grade math but saw increases in grades 4 through 8. We moved from 89th in fourth grade to 54th. We saw improvement in fifth grade (71st to 32nd); 6th grade (96th to 51st); and seventh grade (60th to 46th). In eighth grade algebra I, we moved from 34th to 6th in the state which is very impressive. We saw a slight reduction in Algebra I at the high school (45th to 46th). We also saw a reduction in Algebra II and Geometry (from 16th to 34th and 25th to 34th).
This year, we will focus on strengthening our third grade language arts and eighth grade language arts. We will also spend some time on English I and II at the high school level. In math, we need to spend some additional time in third grade math. Also, we will work on our high school Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry.
We fully understand it is difficult to review all these numbers and determine if we are making progress as a district. Perhaps looking at all of our scores collectively will provide a more holistic picture of success or concern. Overall, we moved from 82nd in the state to 59th in terms of academic rankings. This included all students who were tested through all TCAP testing. This is a significant improvement, and we were pleased with the progress. In 2017, we were ranked 94th so we are making progress. We still have some work to do, but we have made steady progress over the last few years.
On a quick side note, our number of active cases continue to go down in the district. Earlier in the week, we had no new cases, which was the first since we started school and have only 33 active cases. Measuring success is always difficult because there are so many data points and views on what is important. Going back to my construction project, I told my friend he should be happy with being over 99% accurate with his measure. I also told him that I would write out 90% of the check for helping me but not actually sign it. Surely, he would be happy with a 90% completed check. We hope you are able to enjoy fall break and rest up for the remainder of the semester. Thanks for your attention to this article and remember, School Matters!
-Dr. Jeff Perry is superintendent of Hamblen County schools.