JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The most comprehensive test-score data yet released by the Tennessee Department of Education is out, and Johnson City and Washington County’s systems are the region’s clear performance leaders compared to their city and county peers.
News Channel 11 unpacked the data in several important categories and also took advantage of the longitudinal graphs that go back to 2017. That offers a chance to see how systems’ scores suffered in 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they have recovered.
A look at the data also shows that most systems have overall scores in math and English/language arts that exceed state averages.
A bit about the data
Tennessee administers a variety of tests to students starting in third grade that are included in the data and comparisons. Based on standards, a student’s scores fall into one of four categories: below expectations, approaching expectations, met expectations and exceeded expectations.
From those four categories, the state determines a “proficiency rate” that equals the sum of students scoring either met or exceeded expectations in a particular school district, demographic group, grade range or subject area.
Scores are also divided into four subject areas: English/language arts (ELA), math, science and social studies.
A rich array of results, graphs and comparison through time is available at the district level at https://tdepublicschools.ondemand.sas.com/districts. A map on that page allows users to navigate to specific districts and data inside each district includes test results (under 2023 district assessment) as well as “performance indicators,” which show achievement scores that take into account both raw scores and any growth compared to prior performance.
The state also measures the scores of historically underserved groups, including students of color, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English language learners.
The city districts
News Channel 11 compared the Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Greeneville and Elizabethton districts using “overall scores” for English/language arts and math, which are a weighted average of all grade levels. We also compared each district’s pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic and 2023 scores internally in those categories, and we looked at the scores of economically disadvantaged students in each district.
Johnson City stood out significantly in each of those categories. In English/language arts, 57.7% of Johnson City students tested proficient this year, with a full 21.5% of those testing at the highest level, “exceeding expectations.”
The other four districts were tightly grouped between 11 and 13 percentage points behind Johnson City, with Elizabethton at 46.7%, Greeneville 45.5%, Kingsport 45.2% and Bristol 45%. The state aggregate proficiency rate was 38.1%.
The other four districts had “exceeding expectations” rates between 10.7% (Bristol) and 12.5% (Kingsport).
In the math category, Johnson City also scored more than 10 percentage points above the other districts, with a 57.0% proficiency rate. That was followed by Elizabethton (46.2%), Bristol (45.2%), Kingsport (43.3%) and Greeneville (41.8%). The state proficiency rate was just 34.0%.
Johnson City also again had much higher rates of students exceeding expectations in math, with 25.6% of students reaching that level. The other four districts ranged from 13.7% exceeding expectations in Kingsport to 11.6% in Elizabethton.
Economically disadvantaged scores
School systems are encouraged to strive for as narrow a gap as possible between the scores of historically underserved students and those who are not. Johnson City Supervisor of Instruction Roger Walk said Tennessee includes students who “directly certify” for free meals because their households already receive federal aid like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or SNAP (food stamps).
Tennessee and many other states include a growth or “value-added” piece to school accountability measures that takes into account the correlation between poverty and achievement, Walk said, because they recognize “a correlation between poverty and achievement.”
On the raw score front, Johnson City’s economically disadvantaged students did better than their peers in the other city systems. In ELA, 36.3% of Johnson City students scored proficient.
Elizabethton and Greeneville were at 28.9% and 28.3% respectively, with Bristol at 27.3%. Kingsport lagged further behind in this category, with just 23.9% of disadvantaged students proficient. The state rate was 20.5%.
In math, Johnson City saw 35.0% of economically disadvantaged students score proficient. There was more spread between the other cities, with Elizabethton at 29.0%, Bristol at 25.5%, Greeneville at 21.3% and Kingsport the lowest again at 21.0%. The state rate was 17.2%.
Pulling out of the pandemic
Score data from the last testing year before the pandemic (2019) and the next testing year (2021) put in sharp relief the learning loss that officials spoke of in the midst of COVID. The 2023 scores show that most districts have regained most of those losses in proficiency rate and in some cases exceeded their pre-pandemic scores.
One notable data point is the difference between recovery in ELA and that in math. Every district had higher ELA scores in 2023 than it did in 2019. Only Elizabethton had a higher math score in 2023 than it did in 2019. Bristol’s score was the same.
Greeneville’s math score was still 5.6% lower than in 2019, Kingsport’s score was 4.4% lower and Johnson City’s 3.9% lower.
The highest score decline was for math in Greeneville, which dropped from 47.4% proficient in 2019 to 32.0% in 2021. Math scores declined by more than 10% in the other four cities as well.
ELA scores declined less, falling just 2.8% in Johnson City and a high of 7.3% in Elizabethton, where they fell from 41.9% in 2019 to 34.6% in 2021.
Statewide, the math proficiency rate dropped from 36.8% in 2019 to 25.6% in 2021, and remained below the 2019 figure this year at 33.8%. The ELA rate dropped much less, from 34.7% to 29.6% in 2021, and exceeded 2019 this year at 38.1%.
County schools generally lower, Washington an outlier, Greene sees big gains
In ELA for all students, Washington County was the only county school system in the region to surpass the state rate for proficiency, with 45.9% of students reaching that level. That puts it right in line with every city system except Johnson City.
The other county systems were all below the state rate of 38.1%. Greene County was at 36.3% and Sullivan at 35.6%. They were followed by Carter and Unicoi at 33.9% and 33.1%, while Hawkins and Johnson counties brought up the rear at 31.6% and 30.7% respectively.
In math, Washington County still led the way but by a much closer margin. Yet to climb all the way out from a steep pandemic drop, it had 39.2% proficiency, which was lower than all five city systems. Greene County was just behind at 38.5%.
Falling below the state rate of 34.0% were Sullivan (33.1%), Unicoi (29.0%), Carter (26.5%) and Hawkins (24.7%). Johnson County’s math proficiency rate was just 18.1%.
Economically disadvantaged scores
Every area county scored above the state proficiency rate for economically disadvantaged student ELA scores.
Washington County was at 32.0%, with a good cushion over Greene County’s 27.1%. Unicoi was at 24.6%, Johnson 23.9%, Sullivan 22.3% and Hawkins 21.6%. The state’s rate was 20.5%.
Washington County’s ELA disadvantaged rate was higher than all the cities’ but Johnson City, while Greeneville and Unicoi County both had higher rates than Kingsport.
In math, Greene County had the best performance for disadvantaged students, at 26.4%, which bested three of the city districts including Greeneville. Washington County’s rate was 25.1%, with Sullivan and Unicoi at 20.4% and 20.0% respectively.
Hawkins County’s rate of 17.3% was a hair above the state rate of 17.2%, while Johnson County was at just 15.7%.
Pulling out of the pandemic
As was the case with the city systems, area county schools posted 2023 ELA proficiency rates that were at least slightly higher than their 2019 levels. They also saw less dramatic drops in ELA proficiency during the pandemic than they did in math. Only Johnson County had a slightly lower ELA score in 2023 than in 2019.
ELA declines ranged from a high of 9.9% in Washington County (from 44.4% to 34.5%) to a low of just 1.8% in Johnson County.
Greene County was the biggest gainer coming out of 2021, with its proficiency rate increasing from 24.5% to 36.3%. It also has the biggest gain from 2019, when it was at 30.4%. The remaining systems are closer to their 2019 rates in ELA.
Math declines were more dramatic in some of the counties than they were in the cities or statewide.
In math, Greene County also stood out the most in its gain over 2019 scores. Its math proficiency was 30.0% in 2019, dropped to 25.3% in 2021 and rose all the way to 38.5% in 2023.
Some other districts saw very steep dips in 2021 compared to 2019. Sullivan County fell from 31.1% proficiency to 16.7%, but rebounded to 33.1% this year. Carter dropped even more, from 36.8% to 16.8%, and hasn’t gained as much back — it’s at 26.5%.
Washington County dropped from 44.6% to 24.5% and remains 5 percentage points below its 2019 level, at 39.2%.