Students in Tennessee are graduating high school unable to demonstrate reading and math comprehension at the same levels as peers in other states even as the nation as a whole is showing stagnant growth.
Achievement gaps between demographics, meanwhile, are proving just as unmovable as ever.
Those realities, reaffirming what state officials know is a tough climb to improve public high school education here, are spelled out in results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the "nation's report card" — released Wednesday for high school seniors.
Only 17 percent of 12th-grade students in Tennessee reached the proficient level in math, while 31 percent did the same in reading.
Among 13 states that volunteered to be "pilot states" for the 12th-grade NAEP exam, Tennessee finished above only West Virginia in both categories.
It was the first year Tennessee has opted for the state-level test for 12th grade after it became available in 2009.
Tennessee boasted historic gains in November among 4th- and 8th-grade students on the same test last year compared to scores in 2011.
There is no party set for Tennessee high schoolers, though.
And while the 12-grade results lack a previous year's baseline for comparisons, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said he believe the scores reflect the state's ACT, which has remained largely flat, from 19.2 in 2012 to 19.3 the next year.
"Far too many of them left high school at the end of 13 years in education without a high enough level of skills for postsecondary or the workplace," Huffman said. "That's obviously a huge problem, and something we've known for a while."
High school, in fact, is lagging not just behind the other dozen tested states but also behind Tennessee's elementary and middle schools.
Consider: Tennessee outperformed states such as Michigan and Arkansas on the NAEP exam for fourth-grade students. They scored roughly the same in eighth grade. But in 12th grade, Tennessee students fell behind on NAEP.
Huffman, who has pointed to new teacher evaluations, higher standards and other policy moves for producing the elementary and middle school gains — to the chagrin of his critics — believes lacking those things early on might have affected the high school results.
"Kids who graduated from high school last year have gone through the vast majority of schooling before most of the changes that happened in education kicked in," he said. "The other thing is, I think we have to ask the question about whether our high schools are improving at the same rate as our elementary and middle schools are."
He said he hopes to see "some movement" on the ACT by 2015, and that the state needs to make sure more of its kids are taking high-level classes such as Advanced Placement — participation in which is actually on the decline in Tennessee.
But Tennessee's struggle with high school NAEP results isn't unique — the combined 13 states did not change their overall scores in reading and math at all from four years ago. Only four states tested showed gains in math from 2009, while two did so in reading.
Achievement gaps between white and black students, at the same time, widened from 1992 in reading nationally and only improved in math in four states.
"Despite the highest high school graduation rate in our history, and despite growth in student achievement over time in elementary school and middle school, student achievement at the high school level has been flat in recent years," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said of the nation's results. "Just as troubling, achievement gaps among ethnic groups have not narrowed."
In Tennessee, black students had an average score that was 27 points lower than white students, compared to a national average of 29 points lower. Hispanic students had an average score that was 22 points lower than white students, compared to a 21-point difference between white and Hispanic students.
This story will be updated later.
NAEP 12th grade results
Massachusetts — 34
New Jersey — 33
Connecticut — 32
New Hampshire — 32
South Dakota — 28
Illinois — 27
Iowa — 26
Michigan — 25
Idaho — 24
Florida — 19
Arkansas — 18
Tennessee — 17
West Virginia — 14
Connecticut — 50
New Hampshire — 45
Massachusetts — 43
Idaho — 41
New Jersey — 41
Iowa — 40
South Dakota — 39
Illinois — 39
Florida — 36
Arkansas — 33
Tennessee — 31
West Virginia — 28