Tennessee’s unique Achievement School District (ASD), which seeks to turn around the state’s bottom 5 percent of public schools, would be impacted more directly than locally operated school districts if the state again changes its academic standards and assessments, according to a new report.

That’s because, by its very nature, the ASD is “extremely test-driven,” explains Joshua Glazer, a George Washington University researcher who co-authored the report based on an ongoing study conducted with researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

While decisions about all schools in Tennessee are tied to test scores, test scores are the primary reason for the existence of the ASD, which the state created in 2011 to push Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools to become part of its top 25 percent of schools within five years. Performance is measured wholly by test scores – making ASD schools particularly affected by state-mandated changes to standards and assessments, Glazer noted.

Currently, the state’s Common Core State Standards – which set annual benchmarks for what students should know in math and language arts – are under review by the state, and some lawmakers have filed bills in the legislature that would scrap them altogether.

The ASD study was initiated to explore how students’ educational experiences are impacted by the state-run Achievement School District, which works under an ambitious turnaround goal for academic performance; an emphasis on autonomy and accountability geared toward innovation; and an unusual system of governance in U.S. education. The study was funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation and supported by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The resulting report notes the diverse array of schooling choices that have quickly developed under the ASD’s oversight, with designs that reflect fundamental differences in providers’ philosophy and approach to teaching and learning. However, the report also says that questions remain about whether these divergent approaches will flourish and stabilize over time.

The report lauds the unified sense of mission shared by the ASD and its operators but also cautions that its focus on testing might cause officials to lose sight of nuances that cannot be measured by tests.

The Achievement School District currently operates or authorizes 23 charter schools in Memphis and Nashville, and Glazer reports that many are focused on measuring success with the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, the standardized achievement tests that are being phased out next school year as the state ushers in a new assessment aligned with the Common Core State Standards. To keep pace next school year with the new assessment, which is being developed to align with the 4-year-old Common Core State Standards, ASD schools will have to significantly shift their measurement approach, Glazer says. Conversely, ASD schools that have built their designs around the new Common Core State Standards might have to rework curricula and practices if the state legislature votes this year to back away from the standards.

The focus on tests may cause ASD leaders to lose sight of successes by the district’s charter operators that cannot be measured by assessments alone, according to the report’s authors.

“There are fundamental differences among the providers — not just tactical or strategic differences, but really different underlying ideas about what is important in an education,” Glazer told Chalkbeat. “The point that we’re trying to make is that there are some things about these providers that just won’t be picked up by tests.”

For instance, it’s difficult to infer from tests alone what combination of student demographics and mobility, teaching styles, and curriculum are impacting student learning.

ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley said the report provides helpful information and feedback to the state-run school district. “They really got us thinking about what we incentivize,” he said.

Smalley said ASD administrators consider financial, academic and operational matters when taking stock of their schools but believe a substantial focus on test scores is appropriate. “We can’t measure everything that matters, and have to decide where the greatest leverage is,” he said. “With that in mind, we’ve decided that the greatest leverage is in objective measures of student learning.”

Here are other takeaways outlined in the report:

  • Currently, charter operators authorized by the ASD meet annually to exchange ideas during meetings called “school practice reviews.” While the report’s authors applaud the intent behind the reviews, they found little evidence that these exchanges of ideas actually have prompted changes in practices. “The ASD is competitive — a little bit survival-of-the-fittest — by design,” Glazer said. “That does not make it easy to have frank conversations [among schools].”
  • The report notes a shared sense of mission and choice-based ideology among ASD administrators  and its school operators. “The emphasis on autonomy and the aversion to bureaucracy represent a philosophy that is deeply felt by ASD managers, many of whom themselves are products of the charter movement where such ideas are sacrosanct,” the report says. Glazer said this unified philosophy differentiates the ASD from almost any other school system — and could lead to more efficient decision-making. “It doesn’t mean they don’t have arguments or debates,” he said. “But it could contribute to efficiency. … A very strong unity of mission can only help.”
  • Overall, the report is optimistic about the ASD’s future. “The ASD is still in its infancy, and the time, energy, and wherewithal needed to support this type of learning community may emerge with time,” the report concludes. “The tensions we describe stem from their heroic effort to foster an environment where autonomy, diversity, strong outcome accountability and organizational learning contribute to dramatic improvements in student learning in schools with a long history of failure and poor performance. We hope that unearthing these tensions and holding up a mirror will help the ASD and others seeking to embark on similar tasks to accomplish their goals.”

Read the entire report here: