Mixed results for ASD in second year running schools

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

The state-run Achievement School District (ASD) reversed a decline in the percent of students who passed a state reading test and saw growth in its math scores in its second year running some of Tennessee’s most challenged schools. But reading scores in those schools are still lower than they were before the state intervened.

The ASD has been expanding quickly since it first started running schools in 2012. It has been touted as a promising approach for states looking to improve their lowest-performing schools.

But its results so far, and its progress toward its self-set goal of bringing each of its schools from the bottom 5 percent into the top 25 percent in the state within five years, have been decidedly mixed.

The stakes are high for schools, students, teachers and staff: The district will use the test scores to help determine which of its turnaround efforts and charter school operators are most effective. Schools that do not meet their targets after three years in the ASD are eligible to be turned over yet again to a different charter operator.

“All our schools have three years to be on track, and if not, we’re going to replace charter operators. If it’s direct run, we’ll replace ourselves with a high-performing charter,” said Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD.

The ASD ran six schools in 2012-13 and 17 in 2013-14, and plans to run 23 in the coming school year. All but one are in Memphis. Schools that are taken over by the ASD either become charter schools or are run directly by the ASD, and get new staff, curriculum, and control over their schedules and budgets. The ASD also starts new charter schools.

This year’s district-level scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), released today by the state, don’t reveal which schools are on target. So far, Barbic says, three of the six schools the district has run for two years, including charters and direct-run schools, are on track to be in the top 25 percent in the state within five years. Which schools have achieved that benchmark will be determined by a mix of test scores, graduation rates, and other factors.

Only the scores for schools that have been part of the district for two years are used to gauge how well the district is doing according to state accountability guidelines. This year’s scores count as a new baseline for schools that were just added to the ASD last fall.

In the set of six schools the ASD has run for two years, the percent of students who scored proficient or above in reading in grades 3-8 increased from 13.4 percent to 17 percent. But reading scores for those six schools are still not as high as they were the year before the district took over the district, when 18.1 percent of students scored proficient.

The percent of students proficient in math in grades 3-8 in the second-year schools increased from 19.6 to 21.8 percent.

In the 11 schools that became part of the ASD in 2013, 21.5 percent of students scored proficient in math and 22.3 percent of students scored proficient in reading. Those scores are now the “baseline” from which future performance will be judged by the state.

Statewide, 49.5 percent of students overall and 37 percent of the state’s low-income students scored proficient or advanced in reading in grades 3-8. In math, 51.3 percent of students and 38 percent of low-income students scored proficient or advanced. In 2013-14, the lowest score a school could earn and still be ranked in the top quartile was 63.8 percent in math and 61.5 percent in reading language arts, according to Elliot Smalley, a spokesman for the ASD.

The brightest spot for the ASD is the district’s two new high schools: 44.9 percent of high schoolers were proficient or above in Algebra 1, compared to 62 percent statewide, and 56.6 were proficient in English I, compared to 71 percent statewide. That represents a 24.2 percentage point gain in Algebra I and a 42.4 percentage point gain in English I. The ASD operated two high schools in 2013-14, both of which only enrolled ninth graders. 

Scores from the district’s alternative school, Pathways in Education, were not included in the district-wide data as the school just opened in January.

Observers in Frayser, where the ASD runs six schools, were less interested in the district’s overall scores than in hearing how high-flying schools were achieving their results.

“We really want to know what’s working and what’s not, and if you have something working, how do you take that and use it at other schools to help students move up?” said Sonya Smith, the chair of the education commission for the Frayser Neighborhood Council who has reviewed the test results.

That school-level data and the state’s new priority list will be released in August.

Barbic pointed to some trends. For instance, he said that schools that had been “phased in”—that is, the school was taken over grade by grade rather than all at once—seemed to be faring better than schools that are taken over all at once. “If it looks like this is in the best interest of kids, we’re going to continue to do that,” Barbic said. Three of the ten schools closed by Shelby County were ASD “phase in” schools.

The ASD’s scores will likely be compared to the performance of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a federally-funded turnaround effort. Last year, Shelby County’s Innovation Zone outperformed the ASD on state tests. The Innovation Zone schools’ results will be released with school-level data in August.

Shelby County board member Shante Avant said earlier this year that in-district school improvement efforts such as the Innovation Zone outperform the ASD, state policymakers might reconsider whether the new state district is the best approach. State education commissioner Kevin Huffman said this spring that he believes the ASD will be a permanent part of the state’s education department.


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”