published Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Hamilton County schools focus on narrowing gaps in scores

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A white or Asian student in Hamilton County does 21 percent better in high school math than a black, Hispanic or Native American.

An elementary school student without a disability does 32 percent better than one with a disability.

A nonpoor elementary school student does 30 percent better in reading than a poor student.

Those and other achievement gaps among minority groups are narrowing, but not fast enough, according to state education officials. While Hamilton County met a majority of its overall student achievement goals for 2012, the district only met three of its 16 goals for closing achievement gaps among student groups.

Under the state's new school accountability system, which replaces No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress, school districts must meet a majority of testing goals and goals for narrowing achievement gaps, including gaps between races, poor and nonpoor students, special education and regular education students and English as a second language and those whose first language is English.

Hamilton County's slow-to-budge achievement gaps got it labeled as an "intermediate" district, one of three categories under the state's new system and the most common label for school systems. Of Tennessee school districts, 21 received an "exemplary" label, while three were placed in the "needs improvement" category.

After viewing the results last week, Hamilton County Board of Education members questioned what the district was doing to close gaps. Board member Jeffrey Wilson said teachers alone can't be tasked with fixing the problem.

"There has to be a systematic approach," he said.

The school system, he said, needs to see what's working and replicate it districtwide.

Superintendent Rick Smith said administrators are carefully eyeing the gaps and working to reduce them. But that gets even tougher when you're trying to raise scores for all students, he said. If white students improve their scores, that could widen the achievement gap between them and black students. And if the two groups improve at the same pace, the gap could remain steady.

"We want everyone to improve," Smith said.

To raise all student scores and keep watch over gaps, schools are using a new tracking software system that allows them to see a performance snapshot of an individual student or a group of students. With the software, teachers can instantly view a student's grades, attendance patterns and previous state test scores.

Focusing on student data allows teachers to identify struggling students and get them help more quickly, Big Ridge Elementary School Principal Neelie Parker said.

At Big Ridge, teachers test students throughout the year, which helps them identify students who should be pulled aside for one-on-one reading instruction or those who could use some extra small group work in math.

"They get grouped according to what their needs are," Parker said.

"We will do our best to make sure that, no matter what you come to us with, we'll meet you at the door where you are and do our absolute best to give you something to work toward."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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