How do Tennessee students rank in reading compared to the nation?

TCAP scores have Tennessee third-graders sweating about summer school, but how does Tennessee rank nationally?
The Tennessee Department of Education has released district-specific data on third-grade English TCAP scores.
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 3:25 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Tennessee’s recently enacted third-grade retention law has parents and students alike questioning the validity of TCAP tests when deciding a student’s abilities in English and Language Arts skills.

Previous Coverage: ‘This test is dumb’: Tennessee third grader pens letter to lawmaker over TCAP concerns

The change in policy, which now requires third-graders to score “proficient” on the ELA portion of the TCAP to pass the third grade, was enacted in part to improve elementary English skills.

Understandably, this might make Tennesseans think students are performing poorly when compared to other states, but federal data suggests that Tennessee actually ranks about average.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, is a congressionally mandated project administered by the U.S. Department of Education. It ranks student performance state-by-state by giving states a score from zero to 500.

The benchmarks are reported for fourth, eighth and twelfth grade, but there is no data available on third grade, specifically.

Tennessee fourth-graders scored 214 out of 500 in 2022, which is only two points from the national average (Tennessee’s score was categorized as “not significantly different than the National public”). The highest-scoring state, Massachusetts, scored 227.

That puts Tennessee at #35 on the list of every state and a few other districts, like Washington D.C. An increase of two points would put Tennessee on par with the national average and move the state’s ranking up to around 25.

That suggests that Tennessee students in the fourth grade perform averagely when compared to the nation as a whole, but where Tennessee really falls short is in how many fourth graders perform at or above that “proficient” level.

According to the data, only 30% of Tennessee fourth-graders meet that mark. However, on average, only 32% of fourth-graders across the U.S. meet that proficiency threshold. 43% of Massachusetts fourth-graders meet the threshold.

So if Tennessee readers are effectively average in the country, how does the U.S. stack up against other school systems internationally? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, which presents data from 2016, the U.S. fares fairly well. However, this data measures literacy, not specifically skills in English.

United States fourth-graders ranked 13th among 43 international school systems. Countries like Russia, Finland, Poland, Hungary and England performed better than the U.S. The data assigned scores to each school system, much like the national data, ranging from zero to 1,000. Moscow City, the highest scoring system, made 612, while the U.S. sat at 549.

As it stands, 60% of Tennessee third-graders are facing possible retention, taking third grade again, due to TCAP scores. In Knox County, 1,349 third-graders are facing summer school, tutoring or both if they wish to move on to the fourth grade.