National testing time

In first comparison with other large cities, Memphis students score poorly on national test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Shelby County Schools has gotten its first marks on a national test considered the best way to compare student performance across locations — and the results aren’t good.

Compared to 27 large cities, the district landed in the bottom third of results from the National Assessment of Education Progress, known as NAEP. It also lagged far behind Tennessee’s scores — in which only about one-third of students met the basic standards for proficiency.

The results temper Tennessee officials’ frequently cited claim that the state’s students are improving academically faster than students in other states, but the state’s top education official said she was not surprised by Shelby County’s poor results.

The data was reported Tuesday from NAEP, a test given every two years that measures achievement among a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country. Scores from 27 urban districts are reported separately. This is the first year Shelby County Schools has been compared with the other large urban districts.

NAEP is important because it has long been the only way to compare student performance across states, a distinction that has persisted even as many states adopted similar standards for what students should learn and begun testing students on whether they meet those standards. The exam, which is administered to a sample of students across each state and district, also serves as a check on state test scores.

The Memphis district ranked close to the lowest third in fourth-grade math and reading and in the lowest third in eighth-grade math and reading compared to other cities.

In addition, the scores from Shelby County Schools lagged far behind Tennessee’s scores. Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s top education official, said given Shelby County Schools’ recent performance on the state’s more rigorous test last year, the national city comparison was not surprising.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the results tell him the district needs to stay the course in implementing a myriad of changes to better match instruction to state and national benchmarks.

“I think we’re doing the right work. I think it’s going to take time to implement all the things we want to implement,” he said Tuesday. “To me, it validates why you have to change. Expose kids and prepare kids for the rigor that NAEP measures as well as what the new Tennessee test requires.”

Hopson had said his district was driving the state’s gains over the past several years. He based his claims on the improvements students made on state tests that prior year. It’s still possible that Memphis students propelled the state’s outsized gains on NAEP between 2011 and 2015 — but the new data suggest that local students’ skills are hardly worth bragging about. Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district, makes up 11 percent of the state’s student population.

When the state introduced a new test in 2017, Shelby County’s performance dropped, along with the state’s. “Shelby County was in some of our lowest proficiency levels across the board, as many of our urban districts,” McQueen said. “So we need to continue to think about what are we doing specifically across all of our urban districts to provide support, resources, and intention to all students.”

The national test is low stakes for individual students and schools, but high stakes for politicians and education leaders who use the scores to tout or denounce education policies. The federal agency that administers the tests warns against connecting scores to specific policies.

A Shelby County Schools statement notes that Memphis fourth graders “surpassed their peers in cities like ours” in which 30 percent or more school-age children live in poverty.

“And with the exception of Atlanta, the cities our students are lagging behind have less than 30-percent of their school-aged children living in poverty, which makes the correlation clear.”

Of the participating school districts, Memphis’ 30 percent poverty rate for children was the fifth highest of the participating urban school districts, according to U.S. Census data. Their test scores mostly correlated with the percentage of families with children living in families, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, in which Memphis students scored higher than their poverty ranking.

Note: The score threshold for “basic” in the charts below signifies partial mastery according to NAEP’s standards.

Update, April 10, 2018: This story has been updated to include a statement from Shelby County Schools, comment from Dorsey Hopson, and more information about city NAEP scores and their poverty rates. 

We created several graphs and charts to examine NAEP scores in Memphis, Tennessee and across cities. Look through them all or skip to the ones you’re most interested in:
2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Math
2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Math
2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Reading
2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Reading
Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 4th grade reading
Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 4th grade math
Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 8th grade reading
Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 8th grade math
Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 4th grade reading
Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 4th grade math
Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 8th grade reading
Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 8th grade math

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 4th grade reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading / Mathematics Assessments.

Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 4th grade math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 8th grade reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Comparing Memphis, Tennessee and nation: 8th grade math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 4th grade reading

Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 4th grade math

Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 8th grade reading

Large City NAEP scores by Poverty: 8th grade math

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.