TN scores dump

School-level test scores are in for the Achievement School District. And they’re bleak.

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

In English and math exams, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level, according to Tennessee school-level test data released on Thursday.

Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary, an elementary school in the state district, had the highest percentage of students scoring on grade level in math at 20 percent. Promise Spring Hill Elementary had the highest percentage of students scoring on grade level in English with 15 percent.

High schools struggled even more with math and English — not one of the six state high schools had more than 7 percent of students scoring on grade level. (Read about last year’s results for high schools and elementary/middles schools in the state district).

Search for a school within the Achievement School District or Bluff City High School below. You can compare TNReady scores to see the percent of students scoring at/above grade level and growth scores for multiple schools.

The news is not surprising: The Achievement School District oversees 30 of the state’s lowest-performing schools, the majority of which are in Memphis. But as the district settles into its seventh year, the results show student progress remains woefully short of the original goal — to transform the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools within five years by converting them to charter schools.

Some of the best scores for the district were in science — 16 schools had 16 percent of students or more scoring on grade level. Cornerstone Prep Lester had the highest percentage at 41.5 percent. But Tennessee is transitioning to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject this year.

However, there’s not a full picture of how the 30 schools within the district fared. Out of 113 TNReady tests administered to students, 38 came back marked with asterisks instead of test data for the percentage of students on-track/mastered, also known as the percentage of students scoring on or above grade level.

The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students were on grade level or if 95 percent of students were above grade level.

District-wide results released in July showed students in the state schools are performing far below the statewide average, especially in high school. In fact, scores are dropping. In English II, a high school course, only 4 percent of high schoolers were on or exceeding grade-level, down from 9.8 percent last year. Three years ago, 10.2 percent of students were on grade level.

There was overall growth of scores in grades three through eight, but students in the state-run district are still scoring 28.1 points below the statewide average in math and 25.7 points below the statewide average in English.

State leaders told educators in the Achievement School District in July that the test results were “sobering.” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen appointed Sharon Griffin, a proven turnaround leader in Memphis, to take over the struggling district this school year. Griffin has said that the game plan for improving the district includes monthly visits with community partners, transparency, a “students first” mentality, and coaches who will provide more support around professional development

The Achievement School District scored in the lowest level of student growth. Student growth is measured in Tennessee on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

A bright spot for the state district was the eight schools that scored a 5, or in the top level of student growth: Kirby Middle, Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, Cornerstone Denver, Wooddale Middle, Neely’s Bend, Lester Prep, Promise Academy Elementary, and Aspire Middle School.

But 10 state schools scored in the bottom level possible for measuring academic growth. Westside Middle, Whitney, Pathways in Education Whitehaven, Pathways in Education Frayser, Humes Middle School, KIPP Prep Middle, Fairly High School, MLK College Prep High School, Hillcrest High School and GRAD Academy High all scored a 1. (GRAD Academy closed after May).

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, and after a wild spring of testing hampered by technical problems in the state’s return to widespread computerized testing. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools. However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores.

The school-level results also were released during a time of escalating tension over the TNReady test. School superintendents, state lawmakers, and the state’s top education officials are weighing in over whether the state should continue testing.

There was no data provided for a new Memphis high school under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education, Bluff City High School. According to state data, Bluff turned in 133 English exams and 141 math exams. But no results were provided by the state — meaning either only 5 percent of students were on grade level or more than 95 percent of students were on grade level.

Bluff City High, run by Green Dot Public Schools, opened last fall with 160 ninth-graders. The school is overseen by a different kind of state district — the Board of Education, which is a separate entity from the State Department of Education.

Despite the lack of testing data provided by the state, Bluff City was recorded as a level 5 for growth.

The results are significant because this is the first time the State Board has operated as a direct overseer of schools. The State Board can authorize charter schools if the conditions are right in counties with the highest number of low-performing schools. If a local board denies a charter application, the operator can appeal to the State Board, which can then become the authorizer if it overturns the local board and the local board still declines to authorize the school.

NOTE: A spokeswoman from the state Department of Education said results for grades 3-8 social studies are preliminary, and official results will be released in September. U.S. History results were only available for Hillcrest, where 10.2 percent of students scored on grade level, and MLK College Prep, where 8.8 percent of students scored on grade level.

Correction: A previous version of the story stated that new science standards were implemented last year. They will be implemented this year.


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.

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

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.

READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.