Area education administrators discuss state report cards in time of great flux

Tony Casey • Updated Dec 14, 2016 at 5:34 AM

The Tennessee Department of Education released its system-wide 2015-16 report cards Tuesday, giving area education administrators a chance to view progress made and consider avenues for improvement.

But before talking about the figures, several school officials pointed out that in these times of great educational changes for the Volunteer State, consideration should be given to the way the changes affect instruction and test-taking.

Much of the data released, administrators said, is incomplete and isn’t actually system-wide because it only has some high school testing figures, depending on which tests students took.

“It was a complete debacle,” said Eddie Pless, on changes at the state level. “It really was.”

Pless is Elizabethton City Schools’ director of testing, data, and early learning services.

He said a breakdown last academic school year when Tennessee dropped its vendor for online testing put things in flux. Because of the testing outages and midstream vendor change, he and other Elizabethton City Schools administrators decided early on to go with paper and pencil tests.

The results of Pless’ system’s report card showed, among other things, that while Elizabethton City Schools high school students dropped to a score of 20.3 on the average ACT composite score, compared to 21.4 the previous year, they did have some results to celebrate.

The system’s graduation rate went up to 96.6 percent from 91 percent the year before. The state average for graduation rate is 88.5 percent and the average ACT composite score is 19.9.

Pless said his students will continue to make improvements.

This is the first year Tennessee administered its TNReady assessments. State education officials hope the new test will be a way to measure students’ knowledge, skills and progress, comparing their scores to the top two tiers of assessment.

29.2 percent of Elizabethton’s students hit that top two-tier mark for TNReady Math and 34.9 percent for TNReady ELA.

Carter County Schools produced the lowest TNReady Math and ELA numbers of area systems, with 10.7 percent and 27.3 percent, respectively, reaching the benchmark.

Jerri Beth Nave, Carter County Schools’ federal program director, said the changes in testing and curriculum, made for a transitional year for the system. Just a few years ago, Carter County moved to integrated math courses and the teachers and the students are adjusting.

Also, Nave said what was released from the state was limited information.

Making improvements from 18.3 to 19.0 in average ACT composite scores, and from 84.2 percent to 88.8 percent in graduation rates over the course of one year, Nave said they’re look at the positives as much as the places where improvements can be made.

“We’re pleased with the ACT scores, but of course we want more,” she said. Unaka High School made one of the most significant jumps.

Johnson County Schools’ Director of Schools Mischelle Simcox spoke about some of the high points for the system she oversees.

Boasting 29.2 and 28.6 percent TNReady Math and TNReady ELA figures, Simcox said her county’s students are well on the way to producing college-ready graduates.

They scored 20.1 for an average ACT composite score, up from 19.2 the previous year, and hit a graduation rate mark of 92.3 percent, dropping from 94.4 percent the year before.

Of area systems, Johnson County Schools spends the most per-pupil: $10,389.30. The system also has a 100-percent mark for highly qualified teachers.

Simcox said that’s because of the system’s drive to put the best teachers in the classrooms, plus their geographic location.

“We're very fortunate that we border Virginia and North Carolina,” she said. “We’re about 30 minutes from Appalachian State University and downtown Boone, so we can draw in those teachers.”

Unicoi County Schools Director John English said his system was celebrating their scores from the TVAAS Composite scores, which jumped from 1 the previous year to 5 this year.

The system’s graduation rate rose to 90.6 percent, from the previous year’s mark of 89.5. While still under the state average, the average ACT composite score went up to 19.3, from 18.1 the year before.

English said that big jump can be attributed to the entire district’s hard work, but especially the efforts of the teachers.

“It goes back to our teachers and how hard they've worked to make these jumps,” English said.

Washington County Schools had a 90.2 percent graduation rate, up from 88.8 percent the year before, and 20.8 for an average ACT composite score, up from 19.7 in 201415. The system’s scores for TNReady Math and ELA were 31.7 percent and 37.2 percent, respectively.

Bill Flanary, director of secondary education for Washington County Schools, said he and his fellow administrators were impressed by the average ACT composite score, and were looking forward to digging into the data.

Flanary pointed at the accomplishments of the system, which had a much lower per-pupil expenditure figure than its peers. With a mark of $8,549.70, it’s more than $1,100 lower than Johnson City’s system.

While money isn’t the solver of all problems, Flanary said it does buy a lot of important resources and pay salaries for the best teachers.

Johnson City Schools’ Robbie Anderson, the system’s director of accountability and school improvement, recommended that the scores be weighed lightly, because of the tumultuous year Tennessee’s had in education.

“Due to limited state testing information from the 2015-16 school year, the district’s focus is on college and career readiness indicators,” read a statement given by the Johnson City Schools administration.

That being said, the school district she works for had some of the region’s highest marks.

Along with a graduation rate of 91.0 percent, down from 91.9 percent the year before, Johnson City jumped up to 22.8 on the average ACT composite score, which is up one point from the year before.

Most notably, Johnson City Schools boasted the area’s highest TNReady Math and TNReady ELA scores, with 56.9 percent of their students in the top two tiers of assessment and 46.6 percent of students hitting that level on the ELA assessment.

Anderson said it’s the way Science Hill High School has sought to complete a school goal of incorporating an ACT focus in most everything they do.

“When you look at the Science Hill High School improvement plan, they have really emphasized all core area teachers incorporating ACT vocabulary into their lessons,” she said. “There’s been sort of an emphasis all through the school, not just in English and Math.”

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