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.”