Momentum

The Nation’s Report Card is out soon. Will Tennessee’s hot streak continue?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee celebrated historic gains on the Nation's Report Card in 2013.

The Nation’s Report Card has served as both a carrot stick and a kick in the pants to Tennessee in its quest to improve public schools.

The kick in the pants came first, when the state got called out in 2007 for the wide gap between how it was reporting student proficiency on its own tests versus what was showing up on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card.

The carrot stick came from 2011 to 2015 when, soon after a massive overhaul of K-12 education, Tennessee’s star shot up on the national assessment. Those substantial gains convinced state leaders to stick with their new policies — some of them controversial — with the aspiration of vaulting from the very bottom to the top half of states by 2019.

Now as NAEP prepares to release its 2017 report card on April 10, a lot of eyes are watching to see if Tennessee’s hot streak continues.

“Tennessee has had a lot of good news to celebrate. It’s come a long way,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “The trouble with NAEP scores, though, is that they never go up forever. We’ve seen this with other states that made big gains and then flattened out. If that happens in Tennessee, it will be disappointing.”

NAEP testing happens every two years, offering a biannual snapshot of student achievement and long-term trends. Because it is a national test, states can compare results with other states.

Most recently, the test was administered last year to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math in all 50 states, making it the largest national snapshot of what America’s students know and can do in various subjects. Those scores are being reported in the newest Report Card, albeit later than usual because of the assessment’s historic transition to online testing.

Tennessee has a lot riding on this year’s results.

The state enjoyed sizeable NAEP gains in 2013 in both subjects and in both grades, launching Tennessee’s claim as the fastest-improving state in the nation. Its performance was more modest in 2015, but the state still managed to hold its ground while scores across most of the nation dropped.

Last year, a massive national study at Stanford University seemed to bolster Tennessee’s claim based on standardized tests taken from students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015. The resulting map — showing high-growth districts in shades of green and low-growth districts in purple — depicts Tennessee as a bright green rectangle surrounded by a sea of purple.

State leaders acknowledge they can’t say for sure what’s behind Tennessee’s momentum, but they can easily identify the policy shifts that have happened in the last decade: higher academic standards, a new state test aligned to those expectations, and a gamut of systems to hold districts, schools, teachers, and students accountable.

“We believe our policy direction has moved us to a strong foundation to build on instructionally in our classrooms,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “The classroom instruction really matters, but the policies have set that up for success.”

Those policies include the controversial use of students’ standardized test scores in teacher evaluations — a key part of Tennessee’s game-winning plan in the 2009 Race to the Top competition, the U.S. Department of Education’s strategy for influencing states during the Obama administration. Tennessee leaders have dug in their heels on this policy, even as most of its teachers question the fairness and accuracy of their evaluations.

“Having a system of teacher evaluation and support that focuses on student growth has reinforced in all of us the need to row in the same direction,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

Whatever it is, “something appears to be working in Tennessee,” according to Petrilli.

Now the challenge is continuing that upward trajectory.

“It’s one thing to go from bad to good on NAEP. It’s quite another to go from good to great,” Petrilli said.

For leaders like Morrison, Tennessee’s 2017 performance doesn’t have to match its 2013 gains to legitimize the state’s improvement story.

“We know we’ve raised the bar in terms of our expectations for student achievement … but we’ve been in a significant transition,” she said. “Our hope is that, at a minimum, we’ll maintain our progress and show that those big gains since 2011 are real.”

Are Children Learning

Chicago is sending more high schoolers to college — but will they graduate?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Janice Jackson, and other city officials convened at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood to announce the latest college enrollment statistics.

Senior Tanariya Thompson, 17, said she and her friends at Michele Clark Magnet High School are constantly asking each other about where they want to go to college. But they’re not just talking, they’re doing their research, too.

“In a lot of our seminar classes I see more kids on the computers applying for colleges instead of just sitting there looking or saying, ‘I ain’t going to college,’” she said. “We’re serious: We want to go to a college so we can become somebody. Next week, I will have my top three.”

Chicago Public Schools released data today showing that more students than ever before are enrolling in college. The mayor and district officials announced the encouraging figures on the West Side, at Michele Clark High School, where students said they’ve seen more energy, excitement and urgency among their peers around the idea of enrolling at college.

The data shows that 1,000 more Chicago Public School graduates from the Class of 2017 enrolled in college compared with 2016, a 4.8 percent increase and the biggest one-year jump in nearly a decade.

Chicago still has a problem with public school graduates staying in and completing college. In 2016, just 18 percent of ninth graders were projected to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation, and four-year college graduation rates have remained pretty stagnant since 2009, according to a fall 2017 report by the UChicago Consortium on School Research. (The report didn’t calculate two-year degree attainment).

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the latest enrollment data “an incredible statement about where Chicago Public School students are,” adding that nearly 90 percent of high school freshmen were on track for graduation.

“Every time they walk around and say, ‘not those kids, not from that school, not that background, not that ZIP code, not that family,’ — you come here to Michele Clark and you tell these kids that,” Emanuel said, knocking on the wooden podium before him for emphasis.  “You guys have proved them wrong every step of the way.”

From 2010 to 2017, the college enrollment rate increased from 53.7 to 64.6, according to the school district.  Officials credited everything from partnerships with OneGoal and other organizations focused on getting kids to and through college, to a summer text messaging campaign to nudge graduates toward completing action items along the enrollment path, and scholarships to city colleges for students who attain a B average or higher.

They also noted a shift in perspective.

“I think it’s because people have become more serious,” said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson. “I’ve seen it in action with people doing more college trips, people getting out to scholarship fairs, students having a different mindset.”

From 2016 to 2017, college enrollment rates for African-American and Latino students improved by 2.3 percentage points and 7.2 percentage points, respectively, according to the school district. The African-American college enrollment rate increased from 55.4 percent in 2016 to 57.7 in 2017, and the Hispanic college enrollment rate leaped from 59 percent in 2016 to 66.2 percent in 2017, according to district data.

Flanked by Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado, Emanuel said, “it used to be as a system, we were done just getting you to high school graduation, and our responsibility was over,” but now it’s different. The mayor added, “the biggest transformation is the mindset not just of our kids, but of the system.”

“It’s why we’re also making sure we set a goal that by 2019, every child has a plan for what comes next,” Emanuel said, alluding to a new CPS graduation requirement that demands every student “has a meaningful planning conversation with an adult, and graduates with a plan to map out their future.”

The data indicate more students are enrolling at City College of Chicago.

The district said 5.8 percent more students enrolled at city colleges in 2017 compared with the previous year. Of district graduates who attended two-year colleges in 2017, 84.5 percent enrolled at city colleges compared with 78.7 the previous year., according to the data. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado praised the mayor and schools chief’s leadership, saying CPS’ gains were strong steps toward officials’ goals of “a more inclusive economy,” in Chicago.

“We also want to make sure that each of you has in a role in this economy, whether it’s downtown, or in our health-care centers, or at a logistics company, or engineering or manufacturing company or a tech company,” Salgado told the students. “This city will have a place for you.”

Officials said the climbing college enrollment rate mirrored the increasing number of district students earning high school diplomas, and also reflected district students’ overall strong academic progress. Yet the percent of students who enrolled in college in 2015 and were still enrolled the following year, 72.3 percent of graduates, is actually down slightly compared with 2010, when it was 72.8 percent.

That — and the low rates of Chicago Public School students who eventually graduate with a two- or four-year degree — are worrisome figures.

Furthermore, African-American and Latino students and students with disabilities still graduate from high school, enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than the general population. It’s a sobering reminder of inequities in the school system.

Officials acknowledged that work remains to get more students to and through college.

That point that wasn’t lost on Michele Clark senior Naquanis Hughes, 17, who wants to study business in college but is still undecided on where. Hughes said staff, students, and even alumni offer this encouragement about getting through the hard knocks that some students encounter in higher education:

“If you come to a hard place, don’t just fall down, don’t just give up, keep pushing yourself.”

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system. The city is also home to two state-run schools placed on priority status.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.