Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.

focusing in

Black student excellence: Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Mary Getachew, 15, right, laughs with her peer mentor Sabrin Mohamed,18, left, at Denver's North High School in 2016.

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of black and African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Denver Public Schools’ data show big disparities in how black students are served by the district. While 13 percent of the approximately 93,000 students are black,

  • 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions last year were given to black students,
  • 16.5 percent of students identified as having a disability were black,
  • Just 10 percent of students enrolled in rigorous high school courses were black.

The focus on black students comes after more than a year of relentless and high-profile advocacy from black parents and activists, and 2½ years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated in Denver Public Schools.

Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it was based on interviews with black educators conducted by former school board member Sharon Bailey, who has studied racial dynamics in Denver. It found that black educators feel isolated and mistreated by the district, and perceive that black students are more harshly disciplined in part because the young white women who make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce are afraid of them.

The report led to a task force, which presented the district with 11 recommendations. Among them: offering signing bonuses to help attract more black teachers, making student discipline data count toward school ratings, and requiring each school to create a plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools.”

Nearly two years later, none of that has happened. And much of what the district has done has been voluntary for teachers and schools. Meanwhile, the data keeps mounting.

Last year, 67 percent of black students graduated on time, meaning within four years of starting high school, compared with 78 percent of white students. On state math tests, 17 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored on grade level, compared with 65 percent of white students. The literacy gap was similar.

Avery Williams, a senior at George Washington High School, told the school board at a work session in December that “there’s an awkwardness around being black” in Denver schools.

“Teachers, specifically white teachers, don’t know how to act around me,” Williams said. Many of her classmates, she said, “do not know how to have respectful conversations because they’re afraid of being offensive or because they’re not educated in the right terminology.”

Michael Filmore, a junior at East High School, spoke about being one of only a few black students in his more rigorous classes, an experience Williams shares. After taking remedial classes his freshman year at East, Filmore said he decided to take all honors classes as a sophomore. He also took the public bus to school and was often late for first period.

“I would walk in the classroom and I would feel like I didn’t belong there,” Filmore told the board. “I felt uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be in these classes. I was pressured. I eventually dropped the class. My junior year, I felt that I would never let myself down again.”

At that December session, Bacon expressed a desire to more explicitly address issues affecting black students. The district has put that kind of focus on students learning English as a second language, many of whom are Hispanic, after a federal judge found the district was violating their rights. Under that order, the district has developed specific methods for teaching English language learners. It requires all new teachers to get certified to teach them.

Bacon and others questioned why that hasn’t happened for black students, as well.

“It’s not because there’s a lack of effort, will, or love,” Bacon said in an interview. “I think it’s because we’re not organized properly and we don’t have an internal stake in the ground around expectations, outcomes, and accountability measures. People want to see DPS is doing that.”

Her fellow board members agreed. On Thursday, they took turns thanking her for bringing forth the resolution, which directs the district to do several things:

  • Require all schools, including district-run and charter schools, to review data about student academic performance, discipline, and referrals for special education to understand how each school’s black students are doing “on an individual level”
  • Require all schools to set goals for supporting black students that prioritize giving them “access to grade-level and more rigorous coursework”
  • Require school leaders to articulate how they will monitor progress toward their goals
  • Train all district staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education
  • Conduct an “equity audit” to understand what the district is doing well and what it is not to figure out how it “can better prioritize the success of our black students”

It will now be up to new Superintendent Susana Cordova, who made equity a cornerstone of her bid for the district’s top job, to carry out the directive. The resolution gives her until May 31 to come up with a plan that would go into effect by the start of the next school year.

“We know that we have a painful and inequitable history of outcomes for our students,” Cordova said. “But facing this with courage, facing this in community, facing this with our stakeholders, our parents, our family members, our community members, and our students holding us accountable, I believe deeply in the ability of people to come together to solve these problems.”

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.