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

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.