County schools receive 'C' report card, 'F' funding

By Stephen S. Glass
Star Staff

   At first glance, the Tennessee Department of Education's report card for Carter County Schools seems unremarkable. Students tested at or near the national average in most subjects -- with a few notable exceptions, both good and bad.
   But take into consideration that funding for Carter County Schools is below the state average -- and that the state of Tennessee itself rates an "F": for per-pupil expenditures when compared to the rest of the nation -- and the county's report card reads somewhat differently. While Carter County's students are testing at or near average, funding for the school system is considered far below average -- in fact, ranked as deficient by the state.
   "It seems to me that even with a "C" report card, Carter County is getting education for bargain prices when you consider the amount of money we have to work with," said one school official who did not wish to be quoted.
   The average county in Tennessee pays for 43.5 percent of local education, while Carter County pays only 24.4 percent of the budget for county schools.
   Carter County spends an average of $5,808 per year on each student's education. The state average is $6,066, compared to the national average of $7,436 per student per year.
   According to the state report, the average teacher's salary for the Carter County School System is $31,546, while the state average is $37,431 per year. The state scored a "D" rating for teachers' salaries. Nationally, the average salary for teachers is $42,436.
   Members of the Carter County School Board said during budget talks earlier this year that below-average pay for teachers has created a higher-than-average turnover among educators, as teachers regularly leave the system for higher-paying positions elsewhere.
   Still, Carter County students must compete with others in better-funded systems, and a "C/D" report card does concern school officials like Dr. Shirley Ellis, director of federal programs and testing for Carter County.
   "Overall, I think we are looking at an average report card for the year," Ellis said earlier this week. "But as a system, we did take notice of some significant deficiencies, particularly in K-5 value-added scores for language arts and math."
   Value-added scores are based on a three-year average of TVAAS grades and are intended to track students' academic growth from one year to the next. Ideally, the scores should let teachers know if students are performing to the best of their abilities. They also give teachers an indication of the effectiveness of their own curriculum and teaching strategies -- at least in relation to test content, Ellis said.
   While K-5 students across the county scored straight "Cs" for academic achievement in reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies, on average they did not make adequate value-added gains for the year, according to the state report. The same students received "Fs" for both reading and language arts in value-added assessments. In math, science, and social studies value-added assessments, students scored "Ds".
   "Some schools had higher value added scores last year," said Ellis. "But it's difficult to maintain that standard."
   Sixth-eighth grade students county-wide scored "Ds" for academic achievement in reading, math, and social studies; "Cs" in science. But according to the state's value-added assessment, the same students showed exemplary gains in science, social studies, and language arts, scoring "As" in each subject. Sixth-eighth graders also showed above average gains in reading, according to the report card. Value-added scores for math did not reveal satisfactory improvement, and students were given a "D."
   Competency test scores for high school students were mixed. High schoolers received a "D" average in math and a "B" average in language arts.
   The average ACT score for county high school students was 18.9, one-tenth of a point below average. A minimum score of 19 is needed for students to enter college without having to take remedial courses.
   "Our system scores are average, right at the 50th percentile for academics," Ellis said. "They're not exemplary -- yet -- but we're showing some positive movement and hope to continue in that direction."
   Ellis said that teachers and administrators are constantly working to help students improve test scores.
   "There is always evaluation going on in the school system," Ellis said. "But we need to continue to think about reform models. There are a number of programs we would like to implement throughout the system, but those programs take large amounts of money -- which means we'll have to continue to work without them."
   Ellis says that inadequate funding probably isn't the only reason for low scores, but that it certainly doesn't help.
   "Our students are as intelligent as children anywhere else in the U.S., and they are able to learn. But our system needs several things, the first of which is money to help pay for up-to-date facilities, labs, and modern equipment."
   With or without new funds, Ellis says administrators and teachers will continue to experiment with various reading and math programs in an effort to boost next year's scores.
   For further information, including individual school reports, go to www.state.tn.us/education/.