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Screenings show reading gains for Sullivan elementary students

Robin McClellan, Community Contributor • Aug 13, 2019 at 1:51 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County elementary students showed gains in the screening assessments administered by the district, with evidence of improvement districtwide.

The district tests all students in kindergarten through sixth grade three times per year, in line with Tennessee mandates, to gauge reading and math proficiency. These “universal screener” assessments help the district benchmark its students’ performance versus national benchmarks, and also to identify students who are “at-risk” of not meeting grade level expectations, and therefore need additional academic support in reading or mathematics. School teams use the data to tailor activities for students based on their specific academic needs.

In this year’s spring screening, Sullivan County students showed historic gains in reading.


The district achieved a significant decrease in the number of students with “at-risk” levels of reading proficiency, from 37.8% of students in the fall screening to 26% in the spring screening. This means that the district has 456 fewer elementary students with an “at-risk” designation for reading. The gains were most pronounced in first and second grade, which saw a 19% and 14% decrease of at-risk students respectively.

All 11 elementary schools in the district saw decreases in the number of at-risk students. Bluff City Elementary School showed particularly strong data, with approximately 30% fewer​ ​students considered to be “at-risk” in kindergarten and 20% fewer students considered to be “at-risk” in first grade.

“Using a strong curriculum allows teachers to dissect RTI (response to intervention) data and student work samples to determine exactly where students are challenged,” Bluff City Elementary Principal Cathy Nester said. “Teachers tailor instruction to student needs rather than provide a one-size-fits-all remediation.”


Across all grades, more Sullivan County students scored in the top range of performance. As evidenced by the fall screening, 15.2% of students were in the 75-100th percentile compared to national benchmarks, and in the spring screening, 22.1% of students were scoring in the highest percentile band.


Overall, the picture is one of improved performance across all segments, from high-achieving to lower-achieving student populations. According to Christy Nelson, K-5 instructional coach, “Our students have made exponential growth moving out of the at-risk designation. Additionally, more students are scoring in the highest percentile band, which indicates that strong curriculum in the hands of teachers committed to student growth meets the needs of all learners.”

Sullivan County attributes these gains to a multi-year investment in reading proficiency, centered around the adoption of an improved reading and writing curriculum, extensive teacher training on success with that curriculum, and strategic intervention based on the needs of students.

The curriculum, Core Knowledge Language Arts or CKLA, is designed to engage students with rich science and history topics while they grow as readers who are building background knowledge. Students read interesting books about those subjects, then participate in detailed discussions, complete projects, and/or write about the topics. The curriculum also provides materials for teachers around all of the key pillars of reading development, such as explicit phonics instruction.

The district began implementing the curriculum during the 2016-17 school year, and this year, teachers appear to be hitting their stride with the program. Sullivan County has also focused on the most effective ways to use data about student skill gaps to tailor the work that students do when working in small groups with instructors. Sullivan County school officials also believe that the system’s partnership with families has helped fuel these improvements.

“We attribute our students’ success to a much stronger literacy curriculum taught by exceptional educators who are committed to high expectations for all students,”Supervisor of Elementary Education Robin McClellan said. “Our students are rising to new levels of growth and mastery, as evidenced by both our qualitative and quantitative data. Collaborative, dedicated teachers and leaders continue to tackle new challenges at the heart of the work as we expand literacy in our community and prepare our students to be future-ready.

Sullivan County Schools will continue to partner with families to build a community of readers. The district encourages families to read to or with children for 20 minutes every day, as part of the “Read 20” at-home reading initiative.

McClellan may be reached at [email protected]

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