deeper dive

Closer look at Achievement School District’s original schools shows wide range in trajectories

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
A student at Frayser Achievement Academy, a Memphis school that posted big gains on this year's TCAP tests

When state test scores came out earlier this week, leaders of the Achievement School District breathed a sigh of relief: After two bumpy years in which test scores fell or stayed flat, the state-run turnaround district’s original schools posted significant gains, especially in math.

State and ASD officials said the third year of scores showed that overhauling persistently low-performing schools without displacing their students, the district’s unusual model, takes time to pay off.

But a closer analysis of test scores at the six Memphis schools that joined the district in 2012, its first year, suggests that that story is not true across the board. In fact, only three of the schools saw the proportion of students scoring “proficient” or higher in math rise since last year, and almost all saw their reading scores fall during that time.

The analysis shows that progress at the schools at the heart of the state’s effort to catapult the state’s worst schools into the top tier is uneven at best. It also underscores the fact that with attention on a tiny number of schools, outsized gains at just a few can color the picture for all.

And it provides a clear illustration of one quirk of Tennessee’s focus on student growth over performance: The schools racked up points for having fewer students score “basic,” the state’s lowest level, even as the proportion of students whose scores put them at grade level did not rise at most of them. That trend suggests that students’ skills are moving in the right direction but are still far from achieving the ASD’s lofty ambitions.

“If our students are ever going to catch up, and we’re going to close the achievement gap, then we’ve got to be growing faster than the state average,” outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic said Wednesday. “There’s certainly still lots of work for us to do.”

Six schools — five in Memphis and one in Nashville — joined the ASD in 2012, its first year operating schools. Three of them were assigned to charter operators, while the district opted to run three others directly. All got new names, teachers and programs in an effort to break out of long histories of low performance.

Of those schools, the three that the district has run directly — all in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood — had higher math scores this year than when the ASD took over, although only two of the schools have outpaced the state’s overall trend during that time.

“We have some really incredible gains this year in Frayser, and that’s partially what led to the 5 overall,” said Margo Roen, the ASD’s director of new schools, referring to the six schools’ combined rating from the state, the highest possible.

But all three schools that the district assigned to charter operators, privately managed but publicly funded nonprofits, had fewer students score proficient or advanced in math this year than last year, even as two had more students at those levels than in 2013.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14,***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from Algebra 1 exams.

Reading scores declined at all six of the ASD’s original schools, although at least three schools that have been in the district for less time saw reading gains.

At Brick Church College Prep, scores fell sharply in all subjects, suggesting that something changed dramatically at the school in its third year or that high scores in the second year did not accurately reflect students’ skills at the time — or both.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14, ***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from English 1 exams.

A policy change that State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen floated as an explanation for statewide score stumbles — a new rule requiring students with disabilities to take the same tests as other students, rather than easier versions — would have hit Brick Church especially hard. Almost a third of the school’s students have disabilities, about double the district and state average.

But Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, the charter organization that runs Brick Church, said a bigger issue was that the school had departed from the network’s prescribed curriculum. “The impact on changes in testing for special education students is very real in schools like Brick Church, but we prefer instead to focus on an effective curriculum implementation that serves all students,” he said, noting that the network had removed the school’s leader at the end of the year.

Brick Church’s experience and the uneven progress among the ASD schools is significant, according to Will Pinkston, who gave the district its name when he helped write the legislation that created it, and who now sits on Nashville’s school board. It’s not the district’s model that’s successful, he says, but the principals and teachers at the three schools with the dramatic gains.

“The structure is much less important than the personnel and the quality and the leadership in the building,” Pinkston said.

To some degree, scores at the ASD’s schools might not even be the best measure of its impact. State officials have repeatedly emphasized that the ASD has placed pressure on districts to improve schools or risk losing them.

“I certainly believe the ASD has been a positive lever for change across our state,” McQueen said Wednesday.

Indeed, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told Chalkbeat that he thought competition had pushed local principals to make important changes on their own.

“The ASD has created this sense of urgency that may not of been there,” Hopson said. “Principals, if they never knew before, you now see them with an extra pep in their step.  You see communities rallying around schools.”

But some local school leaders say they would have made those changes with or without the specter of ASD takeover. And the state’s efforts to improve its lowest-performing schools extended beyond the ASD’s borders, with Shelby County receiving millions of dollars in federal funds for its own schools as well. In those schools, known together as the district’s Innovation Zone, test score trends are also mixed. But more of them posted year-over-year gains, including several that bucked the state trend and saw reading scores climb.

Taken together, the scores suggest exactly what districts across the country have found and Barbic has taken to saying lately: that turning around schools with low test scores and many high-needs students is extremely difficult.

Expecting anything other than small gains each year — and potentially some setbacks — might have been unrealistic, according to Joshua Glazer, a researcher at The George Washington University studying the district.

“You want to see incremental progress,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s realistic that you’re going to see the pace of gains to put a school in the top quartile.”

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.