* Fast growth: Tennessee's growth between 2011 and 2013 was the largest of any state since NAEP began consistently testing all states in 2003.
* Lags national averages: The state's scores lagged national averages, but by just 1 point in 3 of 4 areas tested.
* Chasing Georgia: Scores for three of four tested areas put Tennessee behind Georgia in the national rankings. Alabama finished near the bottom on several rankings.
* Achievement gap: NAEP scores showed wide gaps between the achievement of white and black students. Tennessee had strong growth for black students between 2011 and 2013, but overall growth meant that achievement gaps widened on two of the tested areas.
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, U.S. Department of Education
MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. — After Tennessee students "blew away" the competition on a national exam and made the state the fastest-improving in the union, Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman took a break from their victory lap to set their sights on a new goal.
So what's next? They hope educators and students will beat the national average in the next round of testing on the National Assessment of Education Progress in 2015. That would be a turnaround for the state, whose performance in 2013 lifted Tennessee from its embarrassing bottom-scraping overall rankings to the mid- or high 30s.
Haslam, Huffman, former Gov. Phil Bredesen and others celebrated the 2013 NAEP results at a middle school in Mount Juliet as they found validation for a number of steps Tennessee has taken in recent years to reform its public education system.
Among other things, the state over the past four years has toughened standards in course work for students, made teacher tenure tougher to attain and implemented tougher teacher evaluations linked to student test scores. Most recently, Huffman drew criticism for pushing pay schemes that open the possibility of merit pay and dismantled the state's minimum pay scale in favor of a new scale that places less emphasis on a teacher's degrees earned and years of experience.
While officials acknowledged that Tennessee has a good way to go -- students are still in the bottom half among states in terms of proficiency -- things on the stage sometimes got a little giddy. Maybe that's to be expected in a state where officials have sometimes crossed their fingers hoping not to be dead last in NAEP math and reading rankings among the 50 states.
"That's right. Tennessee is the No. 1 state for education growth in 2013," Haslam, a Republican, told officials, educators and students. "But if you look, it really wasn't even close. ... We literally blew away the other states when it came to education results."
In fact, it's the fastest growth in the decadelong existence of NAEP, said the governor who also emphasized "we are incredibly grateful" to students, teachers and local school directors.
"These historic gains are a result of years of hard work by a lot of people across Tennessee: our teachers, students, principals, superintendents, parents, lawmakers, school board members, business leaders and many others," Haslam said. "As a state, we've come together to make education a top priority."
The NAEP, also known as the "nation's report card," is considered by many experts one of the best comparative measures of student achievement because the test, given to a random sample of students, is common across all 50 states. That makes it useful as a national yardstick of education progress, though it doesn't drill down to the local level, said Kirk Kelly, director of testing and accountability for Hamilton County Schools.
"It gives you an indicator of how well you're faring compared to all the states," he said. "It's a representative sample from all the states, so it's sort of a fair comparison of all the states."
Kelly said the state's growth on NAEP was impressive. But he noted that Tennessee's overall results are less than stellar. Between 33 and 40 percent of Tennessee students scored proficient or above on the four NAEP tests.
Nationally, proficiency levels have yet to move past the halfway mark. Forty-one percent of the nation's public school students in grade 4 and 34 percent in grade 8 performed at or above proficient in mathematics in 2013.
"We still need to get to the point where we have achievement reaching the national average rather than just looking at growth," Kelly said.
Georgia made improvement on all four tested areas of the NAEP, but growth from other states pushed its state rankings down in a couple of areas. Still, Georgia tended to finish ahead of Tennessee, with the Peach State finishing between 30th and 41st this year.
Huffman, whose hard-driving style has drawn harsh criticism from some educators, said he had hoped Tennessee would show the fastest gains by 2015. So, after lauding students and educators for their "incredible work ethic," the commissioner began laying out new goals.
He paraphrased an official who told him the results show that "now, we are not bad. Next time we're going to be able to say, we're pretty good. And the time after that we're going to say we're good. And the time after that we're going to say we're great.
"And," Huffman said, "I think that's the path we're starting to get on, which is just incredibly exciting."
He later tweeted "TN moves from the 40s to the 30s in state rankings. Natl avg is within site. 2015 goal: beat the nat'l avg."
In 2011, the state's NAEP ranking in fourth-grade math was 46th. For 2013, it's 37th. But only 40 percent of the state's fourth-graders are now proficient.
In fourth-grade reading, the state ranking went from No. 41 to 31. Still, only 34 percent of fourth-graders are proficient.
Eighth-graders' math rankings nationally went from 45th in 2011 to 43rd in 2013. But only 28 percent are proficient.
And eighth-graders' reading went from 41st to 34th in national rankings. Yet just 33 percent are proficient.
Still, Bredesen, a Democrat who led the state into tougher demands on students as well as other changes, told reporters "this to me is one of those sort of gates you get through, or milestones, that make you feel progress is being made."
Earlier while on stage, Bredesen, like his successor, said gains are the result of a bipartisan "relay race."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tennessee has become a model for the nation. He highlighted the state's reforms in standards and its push to ensure teacher effectiveness. While the nation's students realized "encouraging but modest signs of progress" on the exams, Tennessee's results were "simply remarkable."
"They are literally the fastest-improving state in the nation on the NAEP results," he said Thursday. "It's a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment."
While officials may have seen the news as validation that Tennessee's extensive reforms are working, Hamilton County's teachers union President Sandy Hughes sees something else in the results.
"What it says to me is our teachers are working hard," she said. "They've been working hard, and it's further proof of that."
Teachers groups have grown especially irked with Huffman's administration. Beyond just altering standards, the state has in the last two administrations altered its teacher retirement program, crushed collective bargaining rights and sought to tie teacher licensure status to student test scores.
"I don't think changing teacher retirement benefits caused the NAEP scores to go up. I don't think making [state] test scores determine whether teachers can have a license pushed up NAEP scores," Hughes said. "I think good old-fashioned work and focusing on standards did."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
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 ...
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...