Warning List

Here’s where Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools stand a year before the state’s next priority list

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Aspire's Hanley Elementary is located in Orange Mound, a historic black community in Memphis.

The State Department of Education released an informational list this spring for school districts to better understand where their lowest-performing schools stand in terms of academic performance. The so-called “cusp list” identifies schools in the state’s bottom 10 percent — one year before the state releases its official priority list of schools in the bottom 5 percent.

Here’s what you need to know before reading this year’s list, which is included at the bottom of this page.

It’s not the official priority list. That list, issued every three years, is scheduled to be released next summer. The priority list will be used by the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, to determine which eligible schools to consider for state intervention and potential charter conversions in 2018-19. But
under a 2015 state law, the year before the priority list is released, the state must notify schools that are in the bottom 10 percent in order to provide schools and districts and their communities with a warning that they soon could be eligible for state intervention. “This list is not intended to prematurely identify priority schools,” said department spokeswoman Ashley Ball. “The intent of the law is to give schools information ahead of time, so that they have time to make meaningful improvements.”

But it’s unclear how much will change before the official list comes out. Because of flexibilities being shown by the state due to the troubled rollout of TNReady, state officials plan to release two priority lists next year: one with and one without TNReady scores from this year. The first list will be based on a three-year success rate, with data from 2016-17, 2015-16 and 2014-15. The second will exclude TNReady scores and use a two-year success rate with data from 2014-15 and 2016-17. A school would have to appear on both lists in order to land on the priority list. That way, problems that caused schools to scramble while administering TNReady in its first year will not hurt their standing. So schools might make it out of the bottom 5 percent if they do well on TNReady — but most everyone expects this year’s TNReady scores to be lower than previous years as districts adjust to a new test.

The lowest 5 percent is still dominated by schools in Memphis and Nashville. Of the 84 worst-performing schools in Tennessee, nearly all are operated through Shelby County Schools, the ASD and Metro Nashville Public Schools. Chattanooga has six, Knoxville four, and Jackson two. Districts in Sevier and Fayette counties, which are primarily rural, have schools that are on a state list for the first time. As has been the case in the past, the bottom 5 percent schools are almost exclusively in low-income communities of color.

Because this year’s list is based on the most recent three years of data, it’s slightly skewed. Schools with less than three years of data can’t be included on this year’s list, even if they are in danger of being on the next priority list. That has to be considered when it comes to schools at two closely watched turnaround initiatives in Memphis — the Innovation Zone under Shelby County Schools and the ASD under the state. All iZone schools have at least three years of data as part of Shelby County Schools. But the state considers schools under the ASD, which are mostly charter conversions, to be new schools once they become part of the state-run district. Since the ASD has added new schools annually since 2012, some ASD schools don’t have three years of data to be used in calculating this year’s list.

Most of the first schools to enter the ASD and the iZone are still in the bottom 5 percent. While next school year is the fifth and final year to complete turnarounds under initial targets, both school initiatives are far from reaching their goals. Five out of the six schools in the ASD’s first cohort in 2012 are still in the bottom 5 percent, despite the state-run district’s goal to catapult them to the state’s top quartile within five years. Only Brick Church College Preparatory in Nashville has moved out of priority range this year. In the Memphis iZone, which also began operating schools in 2012, five of the eight original schools remain in the bottom 5 percent. The three that have moved out of priority range this year are Ford Road Elementary, Douglass K-8 and Chickasaw Middle.

Below is the 2016 “cusp list” of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools based on three-year success rates. It is initially sorted from lowest to highest performing. You can resort the list, such as alphabetically by school or district, by clicking on one of the categories in the first row.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year