School turnaround work is hard, but it’s especially hard in high school, where reform efforts have produced few positive results nationwide or in Memphis, the hub of Tennessee’s school improvement efforts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is hinting that the latest test scores won’t change that trajectory when Tennessee releases its district-level results on Wednesday — at least not when it comes to a handful of state-run high schools in the Achievement School District, or ASD.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

“We’re not seeing a lot of bright spots at the national level, and we are struggling to find some bright spots at the state level too,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

Last year, almost all of ASD high schoolers failed their math exams, and more than 90 percent performed below grade level in English. The scores were significantly worse that the statewide drop under Tennessee’s new TNReady exam, its first test aligned to more rigorous Common Core academic standards.

This year, Tennessee showed slight gains in statewide high school scores released in July. Before district results are published online this week, local school leaders have had several weeks to analyze their results.

Memphis has 10 low-performing high schools in turnaround programs — four in Tennessee’s charter-driven ASD and another six in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

The challenge, said McQueen, is that students often arrive at those schools already years behind, exacerbating their learning curve. “It’s a national and state challenge,” she said.

Verna Ruffin, the former Jackson-Madison County superintendent who became the ASD’s chief academic officer this summer, said she’s already reviewing how Algebra I and the first two years of English are being taught.

“We really need to look at our instructional practices and set aggressive goals for how we’re going to improve across the ASD,” she said, adding that she’s looking into hiring content specialists for both subjects.

This week’s scores are the latest wave of performance information being released in Tennessee. Coming next are student and school growth data, known as TVAAS. Later, school-level scores will be released in conjunction with the state’s TNReady score reports for parents and teachers. And this fall, Tennessee will unveil results for its first year of TNReady testing for grades 3-8. (Preliminary data shows that, as expected under a harder test, those scores have dropped, too.)

Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.