NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Northeast Tennessee’s three largest city school districts all posted higher standardized test scores among middle-grade students than Tennessee averages this year, with Johnson City Schools significantly above Kingsport and Bristol in several key metrics.

The region’s two largest county districts also have widely divergent scores, with Washington County’s significantly higher than Sullivan County’s.

Those disparities between Johnson City and the other two districts also show up in the scores of economically disadvantaged students, a group educators were particularly concerned with during and coming out of the pandemic. The same is true of Washington and Sullivan counties.

The data from the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) show 48% of all Johnson City students scored at or above proficiency in seventh-grade math, one closely-tracked category. That compared to 35% for both Bristol and Kingsport in the same category and 31% statewide.

Fourth-grade English/language arts, another key category according to TDOE, also saw Johnson City with the area’s highest at or above proficiency scores. A full 62% of students hit that mark, compared to 48% in Kingsport and 43% in Bristol. The state total was 39%.

“We don’t test a lot but when we do, we use it,” Johnson City Superintendent Steve Barnett said. “We take it seriously and we look at areas that we need to improve.”

The data also show the region following a statewide trend when it comes to how scores compare to pre-pandemic levels. English/language arts scores have generally increased from their 2019 levels, while math scores remain below scores posted in the last year before the pandemic.

Barnett said that’s one reason the system is focusing on math coaches, who help classroom teachers maximize their effectiveness.

“They go in and provide support and strategies and help with the assessment piece as we go through the year to make sure that we’re hitting our targets,” Barnett said.

Statewide, 34% of all students scored at or above “proficiency” levels in two closely tracked categories in 2019 — fourth-grade English/language arts (ELA) and seventh-grade math. No tests were given in 2020 and scores fell in 2021, by just 1% in ELA, to 33%, but by a full 11% in math, down to 23%. This year, the statewide scores were 31% in math and 39% in ELA.

The changes from pre to post-pandemic have been similar at area school districts, with Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City all posting seventh-grade math results worse than 2019’s and fourth-grade ELA scores better than 2019’s.

Kingsport City Schools’ Andy True said the system saw improvements from 2021 to 2022 but that leaders want to continue assessing the data and making gains. He said enhanced summer learning opportunities in 2021, helped by extra federal funding, were part of the reason the system saw gains from 2021’s scores — including four points in seventh-grade math and a full 10 points in fourth-grade ELA.

“‘What is it that we can learn from this that helps us better meet those continuing needs as we’re moving forward,” True said. “That’s something our staff does and is doing to be able to analyze that so when our kids come back to school this fall, we can have a more targeted approach to where we can make improvements for students.”

Those gains were more mixed among economically disadvantaged students in Kingsport. Fourth-grade ELA proficiency jumped to 32% in Kingsport from about 20% in 2021. Seventh-grade math proficiency was just 11% in the group, though, down slightly from 2021 and way down from its mark of about 25% in 2019.

Johnson City had a much higher success rate among economically disadvantaged students but it, too, had little change in math for that group from 2021 to 2022. Where the overall proficiency total rose from 41% to 48%, economically disadvantaged seventh graders were at 20% proficient, the same as 2021 and down from about 35% in 2019.

Johnson City’s ELA proficiency rose from about 35% to 43% for economically disadvantaged fourth-grade students, a slightly higher gain than the overall Johnson City population’s increase from 55% to 62%. For the last four testing years the city’s economically disadvantaged students have scored better in fourth grade ELA than the overall state average for all students, including non-economically disadvantaged ones.

Barnett said he’s still not satisfied and believes the system can become even more effective at serving lower-income students academically.

“We are going to continue looking at that group, provide additional learning, extending that school day, providing the school buses for elementary school students … where they can stay after school, tutoring, after school work so we can close that gap even further,” Barnett said.

At the county school level, Washington County scored particularly well in seventh-grade math, rebounding from 24% proficiency in 2021 to 43% this year, which is higher than Kingsport and Bristol and not far below Johnson City.

Sullivan County’s seventh grade math proficiency numbers were well below the state average, at 21%. They had dipped to 14% in 2021 and were 22% in 2019. Washington County’s math proficiency was 48% before the pandemic.

“We’re satisfied that we’re closing the gap and showing that growth,” Washington County’s Jarrod Adams said Wednesday. “We expect to do better and honestly we’re implementing plans this summer for how we’re going to address some of our areas – particularly math and science.”

In fourth-grade ELA, Washington County’s 40% proficiency marked a return to its 2019 level after it dropped to 31% in 2021. That was again higher than Sullivan County’s, but not as widely as in math, with 36% of Sullivan County fourth-graders testing proficient.

The gaps held among economically disadvantaged students. Washington County’s fourth-grade ELA proficiency for that group was 31%, compared to 24% for Sullivan County. The difference was even greater in math, with 19% proficiency in Washington County and 11% in Sullivan.

Adams said he’s hopeful the expansion of Coalition for Kids after school programs at Jonesborough and Boones Creek elementaries will benefit efforts to narrow the gap between more and less affluent kids.

“We’ll be offering an intensive after school program for those students where they get a lot of tutoring… as well as some food — they get dinner on their way home and hopefully we see the expected growth for those students and look to expand that program in the future,” Adams said.