Memphis education leaders have long lamented how others — particularly state lawmakers and bureaucrats — measure the quality of their schools. So they’re starting to do it themselves.

On Friday, Shelby County Schools will release school-level report cards that it has designed to give local parents information about their schools. Calling the reports “the school performance framework,” the district will assign each school in the city — the ones it runs, and ones run by charter operators — a grade of 1 to 5 based on test scores, graduation rates, attendance data, and other information about how students are doing.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told board members Tuesday that the new reports would be more accurate and useful than the ones that the state generates for schools each year.

“Oftentimes, we are measured with artificial or arbitrary numbers from the state that could have a school that does very good work but they get an F or a D slapped on it and that doesn’t tell the full picture,” Hopson said “So we believe that as we compare our schools against other schools in the district, we’re able to tell a better story.”

The state’s data system compares the performance of schools in high-poverty cities such as Memphis to schools with more affluent students elsewhere in the state. The comparison is designed to control for issues like those, but many people in Memphis say years of low scores for local schools show that isn’t happening effectively.

Even though the district is using similar data points, including the state’s own “value-added” measure for each school, to assign the scores, officials say they will generate different results because they are comparing local schools only to other local schools.

They are also not using the scores to punish low-performing schools, unlike the state, emphasized Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management. (The exception is for charter schools, which can lose the right to operate if they don’t improve within three years after receiving a scores below 2.)

Instead, the scores are meant to be informational for parents and local policy makers.

“How the board uses that information is entirely up to them,” Leon said. “We’re not making decisions based on that, we’re just using it for information purposes.”

But some principals at district-run schools have worried that Shelby County Schools is falling into the same trap as the state. A heavy emphasis on testing data without also showing the impact of high populations of students with disabilities or living in poverty, they say, could fuel negative stereotypes about city schools and drain enrollment.


Source: Tennessee Department of Education ESSA plan


Source: Tennessee Department of Education ESSA plan

Parent recommendations on how to measure school quality ultimately didn’t make it into the final draft. A positive school climate was cited as the No. 1 characteristic parents look for in a school, according to community feedback compiled by Shelby County Schools during a series of meetings in 2016, but the district did not prioritize those measures.

“If school climate is right, achievement and growth will follow,” the report said.

You can look at the district’s full rubric for the scores here.

Correction, February 1, 2018: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect score threshold that initiates review for charter schools. Charters scoring 2 or below on the scorecard will be subject to review.