At critical moment, state-run Achievement School District posts big gains at its original schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Students, teachers, and families from six of the Achievement School Districts' schools attended a rally at Whitney Achievement Elementary Wednesday to celebrate gains on the TCAP.

After a bumpy first two years, a flagship effort to turn around some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools is showing the test score gains it was created to accomplish.

Math and science scores rose faster this year at schools in the Achievement School District than they did on average across the state, while their reading scores kept pace with the state. Schools that have been under the ASD’s control for the longest saw the largest gains.

You can see school-level and district scores here, and our list of things to consider while doing your own test score analysis here.

The improvements came after two years in which stagnant or even falling test scores raised questions about whether the ASD could achieve its goal of catapulting schools from the bottom 5 percent statewide to the top quarter.

The district’s strategy is to overhaul the low-performing schools, usually by assigning them to charter operators, without changing their student bodies.

Since the ASD launched three years ago, it has been touted by policymakers in Tennessee and across the country as a promising approach for states looking to improve their lowest-performing schools — and criticized by some local educators and communities for not showing results quickly enough.

ASD officials and state officials said Wednesday that the new scores suggest that the district’s approach takes time to bear fruit.

“We needed time to see the progress, and now we have, and it’s like a shot in the arm,” outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic said at a rally in Frayser to celebrate the test score gains .

“When you look at the schools that have been part of the ASD the longest…we’re seeing the growth that was anticipated,” state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen added.

Indeed, gains were most dramatic in the first schools absorbed by the ASD three years ago. Schools under their first year of ASD control saw slower gains, or even slid backwards, just as the schools posting large gains this year did two years ago.

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PHOTO: Achievement School District
The Achievement School District posted larger gains in math and science than the state as a whole. Graphic provided by the ASD.

Barbic said there are good reasons for schools not to show dramatic test score gains in the first year of a turnaround effort.

“What we’re learning is step one is establishing a strong and positive culture,” he said. “Once you establish culture, then you can leverage that, and turn it into academic results for kids.”

Still, it’s not clear if the schools are improving fast enough to be among the top-performing in Tennessee in two years. More than half of elementary and middle schools across the state have math proficiency levels above 50 percent this year, while in the ASD, only Whitney Achievement Elementary School had a proficiency level that high.

And next year the state will get a new test, TNReady, which McQueen has said likely will cause scores to fall across the state.

Barbic said he is optimistic that at least some of the schools are on track to achieve the district’s lofty ambitions.

“None of us are able to predict the future but … our belief is that as long as we can sustain that growth, then we will certainly have schools in the top quartile in five years time,” he said.

This year was an especially important year for Westside Achievement School, one of the ASD’s direct-run schools. If schools in the ASD don’t make gains for two consecutive years, the management and teachers are booted. Out of 26 ASD schools last year, only six were in their third year.  Of those, only Westside was in danger of another overhaul. Double-digit gains in math and science have averted that possibility.

Tim Ware, the director of the district’s direct-run schools, said at the rally that he couldn’t pinpoint the reason for the improvements.

“It’s … a hundred specific things working in concert with each other,” he said. “A close partnerships with the community, an in-depth understanding of where students are academically, and an understanding of how to move them where they need to be.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.